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Stage Exits and Entrances

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They come, they go, and they come back (sometimes). Theatrical venues in New York are canaries in a coalmine, in that their survival rate gives an idea of the whole endeavor's health status. When the spaces shutter, it indicates a dip in business across the industry. Conversely, when new spaces open, it shows a robust and expanding theatrical economy.

The unveiling of the new Manhattan Ensemble Theatre (M.E.T.) performance space in SoHo shows a little of both. It was formerly the Synchronicity Space, but that ended when the Synchronicity Theatre Group went to (as the company put it on its website) "war with the real estate Gods of Manhattan in July of 1999."

M.E.T. Artistic Director David Fishelson heard from a friend that the venue at 55 Mercer St. (between Broadway and Broome St.) was available, took a look at it, and made up his mind to house his company there.

Fishelson and M.E.T. were not able to buy the building, but they did get a 20-year lease and then sunk $500,000 into an extensive renovation. Architect Allan Thaler (with input from Fishelson, Matthew Irvin, and Patrick Heydenburg) designed the rehabbing that turned a 99-seat black box theatre into an auditorium with 140 upholstered seats, and several new amenities for cast, crew, and audiences.

The process from the first fundraising to the theatre's opening on Wed., Feb. 21 (with the first preview of "The Idiot") has taken more than five years.

Fishelson recently led a tour through the space to show off its state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, its 22-by-28-foot stage, a huge rehearsal space, costume and prop workshops, modern dressing rooms, a new box office, new restrooms, and the sketches by Tony Award-winning designer Richard Hoover for M.E.T.'s inaugural production.

Fishelson first adapted and directed "The Idiot" from the Dostoyevsky novel while he was managing director at Jean Cocteau Rep in 1993. He is also directing this production, as an appropriate way to launch a theatre company that will concentrate on theatrical adaptations. Future M.E.T. productions may include dramatizations of great works by Kafka, Dickens, Stendahl, and others, he said. "The Idiot" will officially open Feb. 28.

Lower East Side Story

If anything has ever illustrated the "Sunday in the Park with George" dictum about "bit by bit, putting it together," it is CHARAS, an art and performance center on the Lower East Side. Unfortunately for its founders, they are learning that what takes years to build can be ripped asunder quickly, especially with the aid of Mayor Giuliani.

More than two decades ago, when the area around Tompkins Square Park was still considered unlivable for most New York City families, a group of squatters moved into, and slowly began renovating, a former school at the corner of 9th St. and Ave. C. At that time, 1979, the structure was missing the front doors, windows, and its roof, which vandals had literally ripped off because of its copper content.

The neighborhood slowly gentrified over time, with art galleries gradually opening in some of the bombed-out former storefronts where drug dealers had plied their trade—locals joked that the galleries were dealing cocaine, too, but at least they were doing it in nicer environments. Bodegas begot boutiques, and beer bars begot bruncheries.

Along the way, the former school gentrified too. Its founders gave it the name CHARAS (ostensibly as an acronym of their first names, although its other meaning as an Indian hashish product may have had something to do with it) and gave it dignity. Bit by bit, paint went on the walls, inside and out; stairs were fixed; walls were stabilized; seats were added; and the neighborhood got what the city would not pay for: a functioning performance space, including the Bimbo Rivas Theatre, named for a poet and playwright of the neighborhood.

In October 1996, the Giuliani administration put the building up for auction, but withdrew it when the community made its opposition known. The founders, including well-known community activist Armando Perez, were given a month to present a plan to obtain the building and renovate it. Perez, who was subsequently murdered in a still-unsolved case, claimed before his death that the city refused to take any proposal seriously, even with the backing of Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Field. The struggle over the control of the building continued for years until, for reasons that remain unclear, the administration auctioned the property with several neighborhood gardens in July 1998. The auction at Police Plaza garnered widespread attention in the media because angry Lower East Side residents unleashed thousands of crickets throughout the room in an attempt to scare potential bidders away.

The building was bought for $3.15 million by Gregg Singer, a developer. Exactly one year after he bought the building, he served an eviction notice to the CHARAS squatters. He has also filed a lawsuit to recover what he claims is $600,000 in lost revenue.

The two sides battled it out in court since Jan. 18, when a jury unanimously ruled that Singer could not evict CHARAS because he did not intend to use the building in accordance with a deed restriction requiring that it house groups that serve the community. However, the fight is expected to continue through various appeals.

Will The Lambs Go Missing?

When the play "The Countess" closed in December, after a run that required it to vacate two of the three venues where it played, press spokesperson Beck Lee dryly remarked, "The theatre, to our surprise, outlived the production."

And yet, some in the theatre community have wondered if Lee's quip is entirely true. The last theatre where "The Countess" played was the Lamb's on W. 44th St., whose impending demise was rumored even before the play closed, partly because the theatre space is problematic. It is located on the third floor of the building, making access inconvenient for the able-bodied, and even more so for people with disabilities. Also, because the exterior of the building is landmarked, the notoriously conservative Landmarks Commission would have to give its approval for any alterations visible from outside—a prospect that is about as likely as Barbra Streisand offering to work for scale.

In addition, the stage doubles as the sanctuary of the Church of the Nazarene (or, technically, vice versa, since the church owns the building). The numerous church-related activities obviously must take precedence over the needs of the theatre.

Finally, when the word circulated that "The Countess" was only allowed to extend in short-term increments, and that the Hampton Hotel chain was interested in the property, many observers believed the Lamb's would close forever.

Church of the Nazarene minister John Bowen confirmed to Back Stage, "There is a process to have a hotel built on this site." However, the hotel will not cut into the theatre space. If anything, the opposite would be true, since the construction necessary to add a hotel would also make it easier to relocate the theatre.

According to Bowen, the current plans call for a 108-room hotel to be erected on top of the existing structure, but set back to avoid spoiling the landmarked appearance. The Landmarks Commission requires that the addition must be invisible to any person 6 feet tall standing anywhere on 44th St.

Bowen also said the interior of the current building would be completely gutted, and the new theatre would "look and feel as close as possible to the theatre as it is now." The minister said he is aware any plans to alter theatrical space is controversial, but said, "When the public learns what we're doing, we think they'll be supportive."

For the time being, the Lamb's has booked in "Green Fields," a Yiddish production that moved from the Mazer Theatre.

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