Heartbreak On Fourth Street: The End of The Red Room

Word got around this week that the Red Room, a small "black box like space" owned by the Horse Trade Theater Company, will be closing in March. A press release is due out today or tomorrow, but in the meantime I have this statement from PR whiz kid Emily Owens, who reps Horse Trade:

Horse Trade's landlord at 85 East 4th Street has decided to repurpose The Red Room, and it will no longer be a performing arts space. I believe he plans to turn it into some type of B&B. Horse Trade will continue to operate out of The Kraine Theater and UNDER St. Marks, and they're currently searching for a venue to replace The Red Room. Everybody at Horse Trade is sad to lose a space they've operated out of for 15 years, but excited for the possibilities the future holds.

The Red Room was a tiny space—the kind that New York doesn't have enough of. With 32 stackable seats and a 14'x20' stage, it was about as small as a venue can get without being a living room. It was ideal for truly out-there theater, a hold-out for the Weird in an East Village that has gotten far too normal. Tiny black box spaces are the bedrock of theatrical art in New York City. They are intimate, convenient and, most importantly, affordable. There should be one on every corner. I'm sorry that, come March, there will be one less.

I'm speaking to Horse Trade's Heidi Grumelot next week. I'll let you know what she has to say about that "future" thing she's so looking forward to. Flying cars, perhaps?

A Recipe For The Stranded: Bake, Bake, Worry, Bake

Outside the Magic Futurebox the day after Sandy—desolate but dry. 

Outside the Magic Futurebox the day after Sandy—desolate but dry. 

Magic Futurebox sits in a warehouse in Sunset Park, half a block from Gowanus Bay and a short walk from some of the worst-flooded areas of Red Hook. During Monday night's hurricane, artistic director Suzan Eraslan sat in her apartment in Harlem, nervously scanning reports that a warehouse in their neighborhood had flooded and caught fire. To cope with the fear that it was their warehouse that had gone underwater, she continued to prepare for an upcoming production that was suddenly in doubt, altering costumes and baking furiously.

"I baked a lot of cookies," she said this weekend. "And yeah, I was nervous. I kept having this horrible feeling that everything was ruined by flooding or looting or that we'd forgotten to shut things down."

The cookies, whose recipe she eventually perfected, were intended to be given out during Bloody Lullabies for Brave Women, an "abortion fairytale" whose five-show run will benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund. Unable to travel from Harlem to Sunset Park, Eraslan and her co-artistic director Kevin Laibson had to wait until Wednesday to learn their theater's fate. 

"We worked as much as possible to keep from freaking out," said Laibson. "I was nervous about what the fallout would be for the show, but I was downright scared about whether we would still have a theater."

The damaged warehouse was not theirs. The Futurebox was safe. Originally intended to run just before the election, Bloody Lullabies has been postponed a week, and will now open on November 7th. Their tech week lost, Laibson and Eraslan will proceed with a "pretty bare-bones production."

"Our lighting designer is still stuck in New Jersey," said Laibson, "and our set designer is still without power and dealing with flood damage, so the director and I are here building the set and wiring some floodlights."

Because the show is a benefit, all the labor has been volunteered, and Laibson is wary of asking his crew to push themselves for unpaid work "until they can do so without incident." But because the storm has forced the shutdown of another of women's health clinics, he's hoping that Bloody Lullabies can draw enough of an audience to make a difference. 

Off Broadway And The Five Decade Headache

I'm planning a long post for either later in the week or later today about the history of the term "off off Broadway," and the fact that it is an indisputably awful mouthful. Look forward to it—my trenchant analysis and amateurish research will both amuse and disgust you.

In the meantime, I turned up a May 5, 1957 Times article which appears to be the first time the paper used the term. At the end of a long article complaining about the woes of Off Broadway producers:

One steady observer of off Broadway drama suggested that what was needed was off-off Broadway. As a matter of fact, there is a troupe that calls itself the "Way Off Broadway Players."

Since this was the Old Gray Lady's first use of the phrase, they had yet to settle on the house style, which calls for capital Os when it's used as a noun or an adjective—"An Off Broadway producer," "Off Off Broadway is flourishing,"—but teeny-weeny Os when it's serving as an adverb—"The play was performed off Broadway." Oh, and never hyphenate it.

Anybody who doesn't own the Times Manual of Style and Usage is a chump.

More interesting than these five decade old copy-quibbles is the fact that the complaints of Off Broadway producers have not changed at all—they are still caught between artistic ambition and the nightmarish realization that, "the path to quality is paved with producers' greenbacks."

A few quick figures illustrate the situation. In 1953, a play, "Climate of Eden," was opened for $500. Today the average cost is between $7,000 and $15,000, with $20,000 no longer unusual. The revival of "Johnny Johnson," which ran for seventeen performances, cost $40,000. One of the most experienced off-Broadway producers estimated recently that of approximately 600 off-Broadway productions in the last five years, not more than twenty had made a profit.

That forty grand, internet inflation calculators will tell you, is over $300,000 today. It's been a long time since producing off Broadway was cheap.

Various scourges are blamed. The producers of the '50s criticize the rent charged by theater owners—as high as $800 a week in Eisenhower-bucks—they rage about Actors' Equity wage demands—$40 to $70 weekly—and they complain that competition among the thirty or so Off Broadway houses has forced them to raise standards and spend money in desperate hope that their show will be a hit and transfer to Broadway. "Each producer," reporter Murray Schumach tells us, "clings to the hope that his project will be another 'End as a Man,' 'The Iceman Cometh,' 'The Threepenny Opera,' 'Way of the World,' 'Uncle Vanya' or 'Purple Dust.'"

Those titles reflect one thing about the Off Broadway of old that surprised me—a heavy reliance on "the vastness of literary public domain, where prestige is high and royalties non-existent." This was a day when new plays could find a home on Broadway, and didn't need to take refuge below Fourteenth Street. What was on stage might have been old fashioned, but the front of house headaches have hardly changed at all.