The Artsy Ghosts of Soho Past Buy Themselves One More Year

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

Today marks the first day of the Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory ‘09 performance festival, which continues through August 15. The Ice Factory has been a long-standing tradition at the Ohio Theatre (operated by the Think Tank), bringing a range of downtown theater artists to this now unique location in the heart of Soho for sixteen years. But just a few months ago it wasn’t entirely clear whether the festival or the theater were going to be open at all this summer. To get the full story, The L Magazine’s Alexis Clements spoke with playwright and Soho Think Tank Artistic Director, Robert Lyons.

The L Magazine: Let’s start off with a little bit of background on Soho Think Tank and the Ohio Theatre.

Robert Lyons: In a way it might be easier to start with the Ohio Theatre. I’ve been at the Ohio since 1988 and had a theater company here called Project 3. But the Ohio Theatre predates my arrival – it was founded in 1984. It’s one of the original spaces that helped turn Soho into Soho when it was transitioning into an arts neighborhood. So that history goes back to some of the early people, including Tony Kushner, who had one of his first plays done here [La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse], Maria Irene Fornes had Fefu and Her Friends performed in the space, directed by David Esbjorson, who is now a Broadway and regional theater director. Anne Bogart was here with the Talking Band and they did No Plays No Poetry, which is this whole Brechtian thing. So that’s the long early history. The Think Tank was a company I formed 18 years ago, it was really just a transition out of the other company. That also began the Ice Factory.

Is the Ice Factory the primary producing vehicle for the Think Tank?

That’s definitely our flagship program, that’s the one that has gotten the most attention, but we also do produce our own work that we develop, including my work—I’m a playwright and director. Leonara Champagne is one of our resident artists, for example. We’ve also built off the Ice Factory and started doing a presenting arm during the regular season. Pig Iron Theater Company is one of the groups we work with. There’s also John Clancy who wrote Fatboy. And we had the rehearsal space on the 6th floor, so we had a reading series—the 6th Floor Series. Then with the Ohio Theatre, there is a curated rental program.

And where do things stand with the Ohio Theatre right now? I know there’ve been some rental increases, some concern that the Ohio might have to close its doors. What’s the status on the Ohio’s future at the moment?

As of last week [June 24] we signed a lease that guarantees us the space through August 2010.

So you have at least one more year?

One season and another summer.

Another Ice Factory?

You’re guaranteed one more Ice Factory in this space. And then beyond that, I don’t know.

Can you summarize what happened surrounding the lead up to that new lease?

The big event was in December of 2008, the building was sold. Up until that time the previous owners of the building were in fact the people who founded the Ohio Theatre and they owned the whole building. So it couldn’t have been a more supportive situation. They loved the theater, they wanted us here, they supported us, they made it possible. And that’s really the reason we were able to be here as long as we were, before Soho turned and became the retail mall that it now is. That was William Hahn and Charles Magistro. Eventually the financial pressures of the building became such that they had to sell it. That changed everything.

Where are things right now?

The new landlords, Zar Properties, they’ve been very cooperative to a certain extent. They didn’t love the theater, they aren’t emotionally attached to the theater, but they have appreciated what they’ve inadvertently taken on and been trying to work with us. This latest extension is part of that. They have been trying to cooperate. I think though that the long-term arc is that when the economy improves and the market picks up they’ll want to recoup what they see as the projected value of the space.

Earlier this year there were a lot of emails going around encouraging people to support the Ohio, to help make sure that you were able to stay open. Was that successful?

That particular campaign that you’re talking about was called, Quantify Your Love. It came about because we got so many people coming to us and saying, “Oh my god this is terrible, what can we do?” We tried to have a fundraiser that wasn’t focused on how much money we got as how many people gave.

Like signing a petition of support?

Yes, but taking it one step beyond that so they would actually take the time to donate. One dollar is what we asked for. Most people gave $10. We were pulling from the Obama playbook. We tried for lots of small donations and of course a couple of people stepped up with more than that. We raised about $6,000-7,000.

Do you know, off-hand, how many people gave?

I think the final number was something around 900.

That seems like a lot.

Yeah, to actually give money. But again, it wasn’t geared toward the money. We’re trying to build the case as we go out to the city and other funders that we’re an important institution and that a lot of people are affected by it and a lot of people want to see it continue.

How did you end up with the extension to August 2010?

It was important to get this next year. It buys us just a little bit of time. First it went to last January, then it got extended to June, then we got extended to August, and then to January. At the end of the day it became clear that we needed a year, just conceptually, artistically, financially, that is the unit that the theater works in. So, I made that appeal to the new owners and they got it and they went along with that, to their credit. So we bought that year.

And are they keeping similar terms to those you had before, under the original owners, or is it still a pretty dramatic increase in rent?

Well, they didn’t increase it again, but there was a significant increase when the change of ownership happened and they didn’t really back off that amount.

So you’re going to have a busy year ahead?

Yes, we’ve got a lot to do. We’ve also got to line-up a season, which is actually starting to take shape. We’ve got the Hip Hop Theater Festival, which we got to know through Angela’s Mixtape which we produced with New Georges, led by Susan Bernfield. Susan’s coming back in the fall with a new play by Heidi Schreck, co-produced by Page 73 Productions. And then David [Herskovits] from Target Margin Theatre is probably coming back. Which is important because these groups are staying with us.

With the all the different programming you do over the course of the year, including producing, presenting, the curated rentals and so forth, what percentage of your costs do the proceeds from that work help you to generate each year?

If you include the rentals, I would say that it’s between 60-65%.

And the rest is traditional fundraising?

Right—grants, benefits, fundraising.

So, are there any ghosts at the Ohio Theatre?

I think there are many ghosts here. It’s funny that you say that. When Clubbed Thumb was here for Summerworks a few weeks ago, they had their party at the beginning of the festival and they did it in honor of the Ohio and they asked different people to create pieces and mine was about a guy who comes in with a machine that takes the creaks from the floor and conjures up ghosts. So that was very much on my mind—the ghosts of the Ohio Theatre.

What was it before it was a theater, do you know the history of the building at all?

Only that it was a textile factory. The classic story is that the first group in here had to walk along the floor with a magnet so that they could pull all the straight pins out of the floor.

Have you ever gotten a straight pin in your foot?

No, they must have done a pretty good job.

In terms of the neighborhood—the business owners and the residents—do you feel like Soho is a place that welcomes and sustains artists?

In that broad sense, I don’t know that Soho necessarily does. I mean, you don’t really see things opening up here, you see them closing. Like Culture Project just closed. The role model is Kristin [Marting—Artistic Director of HERE Arts Center], she bought her space. But you don’t really see art coming into Soho, you just see people hanging on. So I don’t think that Soho, as an abstraction, is particularly interested in art, unfortunately. But I think what a lot of people are finding is that it’s when you go out and look at other spaces, which is one of the things that I’m doing, that you really appreciate the location of the Ohio Theatre. Whether or not the surrounding community gives a damn that we’re here or not, which I don’t know if they do, the people who come here know where it is, they like coming down here. It is a beautiful neighborhood, in spite of whatever is in the storefronts, whether that’s of interest to you or not. Physically it’s a gorgeous neighborhood and all the trains come here and everybody likes to be here. So the location is important for bringing the audience, even if they’re not necessarily going to go shopping in Soho or eating. The Ohio Theatre audience has its own little network of Soho restaurants and bars but they’re not the high-end stuff.

They’re the ones that people can afford, who are coming to see your shows.

Right, so it’s a cheap night in Soho, basically. And I think everyone enjoys that. But it’s not the same people who are down here shopping or eating at the high-end restaurants—they’re not necessarily the same people coming to the Ohio Theatre.

There’s that well-known phenomenon where artists move into a neighborhood that’s cheap, often also known for crime, and over a period of time the crime reduces, the process of gentrification begins and the neighborhood shifts to something different, a number of people are forced out of the neighborhood, including the artists, to make way for more well-to-do residents. When I lived in London I came across initiatives by the city government to, in a sense, seed the “bad” neighborhoods with artists in order to improve them. It seemed kind of horrible and strange to me at the time—using the artists as a way to “clean-up” the neighborhood. What do you make of that cycle, Soho being a classic example of change built largely by artists?

It’s interesting when a government is recognizing that process and acknowledges it, which, in a certain sense, artists have been arguing for them to recognize for a long time. We are important, we are valuable, this is what we did, this is the effect that arts have on a community and we need your support. But, paradoxically, when it gets acknowledged, it’s kind of weird to think, we’ll send the artists into the dangerous neighborhoods until they’re safe enough for everybody else to come.

And then the artists and the other residents get booted out.

Right, it’s kind of perverse. But, the logical outcome of getting the recognition is that that’s the process. I think there is a high consciousness right now—Art New York and the League of Independent Theaters are quantifying the economic impact of the arts and why that’s important. So that information has now filtered up and I think is widely recognized by city government, that the arts make neighborhoods vibrant, etc, etc. But what to do with that information?

Right, how do you preserve what’s interesting and inclusive in the neighborhood at the same time that you use that energy? Because obviously Soho is totally inaccessible to most artists or working people in general.

Soho turned a long time ago. We’re like the last of something here. So that will never be back—that Soho. And I guess it’s funny because there’s a part of me that does believe that a city is a living thing and all living things evolve. There’s some element there—you can’t stop evolution cause change is just what happens. But you can try to shape it and control it, so hopefully that’s what they’re doing. Not to get too nitty-gritty about it, but one of the things I’ve found helpful is to look for the mechanisms that help artists stay in their space. It’s one thing to say, we want to help, but how do you do that? What is the actual trigger? And it comes down to very specific things. Like the most interesting thing I heard was from Paul Nagle [Director of Communications & Cultural Policy for NYC Council Member Alan J. Gerson]. He says there’s legislation they’re trying to get passed that would allow the city to give tax incentives to private landlords for having not-for-profits in their building. That seems so common sense, it’s surprising that it doesn’t already exist.

For instance, with our situation, there’s no direct mechanism to apply for that. And that would be an important way to preserve these neighborhoods. How do you keep people like us in the space? You have to meet the market in some way and the way to do that is with tax incentives through the city and the state. That’s how specific it gets. But unfortunately, that’s something that has to go through Albany and pinning your hopes on something that’s gonna come out of Albany is like…well, if you’re depending on Albany right now you’re in bad shape. I think that consciousness is moving up and I think London is an example of it being perversely inverted. But hopefully the cumulative affect of that will provide with the tools to create policy. I don’t know that it’s going to get there in time for us, that’s kind of the race.

So let’s focus on the Ice Factory, for a little while. This year’s line-up is full of massive amounts of spectacle—a 30-person ensemble with live house building [International Wow’s show Reconstruction]; a spaceship on stage [Banana Bag & Bodice’s Space/Space]; five course meals served to the audience [Conni’s Avant-garde Restaurant]. You’re pulling out all the stops.

Right, Babes in Toyland, has a cast of a hundred dozen. I think that’s a little bit of hyperbole in the program there, but yeah, I don’t think that was even so much a conscious choice as much as when we were going through all the applications and all the people we’ve been talking to that just emerged. And once we sensed that, we just embraced it and said, yeah, let’s put on big shows. These kinds of shows celebrate the space because it is one of these huge spaces where you can have 30 people on stage and they don’t just fit they look great on the stage. In that sense, I think maybe we were unconsciously going in that direction as part of a celebration of physical space and what is possible.

And do you think that people have tailored what they pitch to you based on what they can do at the Ohio instead of what they can’t do in a lot of other spaces?

I think that is true. I think there’s an opportunity to do something here that you can’t do anywhere else and in response we’re attracted to that.

One other thing that I noticed in looking at the marketing for this year’s festival is that there’s music in every show, from punk rock to bluegrass to classical piano. I don’t remember that being the case last year.

No, it wasn’t. That’s not something, again, that’s specifically agenda-driven. It comes out of who’s in the pile, who’s available. But it is something that I think there’s a general move toward in downtown theater, which I think is great. I love to see live music on stage. I think it heightens the theatricality of the whole thing when there’s live music. I’m a believer in it and I like to support it. But the fact that it’s in every one, it’s just one of those things that just kind of evolved and then you embrace it.

It seems like this general move toward spectacle in a larger sense than what that typically means in theater is a trend that’s picked up over the past few years—it’s like the next step after the whole burlesque and vaudeville revival that started about ten years ago. Do you have any sense artistically what that might be speaking to in the culture? It seems like theater in general is getting slightly more popular just because of the uniqueness of the experience in a world that doesn’t provide a lot of unique experiences.

Actually I think that things tend to be reactive and I think that it took the reaction against everything getting smaller and smaller. Everybody was like, oh my god, not another one person show or two person show that can only be 45 minutes long. I think that kind of went as far as it could and then people were like, you know what, I’m sick of this, I actually like it when a lot of people are on stage. I also think that there’s an element that people are embracing right now, because theater at this level is not financially driven, it’s driven by passion essentially and that changes the form, I think. We’re not an Off-Broadway theater, we don’t pay everybody $500 a week, you know—I wish we could, everybody’s wishes they could, but we don’t and yet people want to do it anyway. It’s like the lack of money, the lack of financial infrastructure, allows these huge spectacles to happen. If you can just motivate a group of people with your idea and your drive, then people want to do it. So I think it could be those two things—reaction against the small show and then weirdly celebrating the lack of money.

It’s interesting that you put it that way because it seems as though it might also have to do with the relationship to the audience. Since they’re not paying $100 to see you do a very specific thing, in some sense it’s more freeing, like: “Oh, they’re here in the room with us anyway, why not bring them into the game?”

Almost by definition, the fact that they’re there means they’re an adventurous theater-goer. So they’ve already identified themselves as somebody a little more game for something unusual. So if that’s true pushing it just a little bit further, since you’ve already got them there—that could be part of it too.

Is there anything else that strikes you about the group of artists you’ve gathered together for this year’s festival?

A lot of the work is ensemble-created rather than necessarily playwright-driven. Which, you know, I am a playwright, I like playwrights, I think playwrights are important, so I’m not ready to get rid of playwrights in the theater, but this year that these are the things that are being created—collaborative works. And that might tie into the size issue too, that when you have all these people that want to participate, you create a piece that contains everybody and that’s a different model and it’s kind of an exciting model.

Any closing thoughts?

We’re happy to be here another year and the doors are open and theater is happening.

The bar will be open as usual, right?

Yes, before and after each show. And the actors and artists hang out after, which is a somewhat unusual experience in the city, so you can talk to them about the work.

(photo credit: Carl Skutsch)