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Howard Sherman: New York theatres risk being trapped in the 20th century as plans for new venues collapse

Design for Pier 55, which will is now not being built
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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The most intriguing news in New York theatre last week was not about what was happening, but what is not. Two new culture venues – one announced, one long rumoured – have been abandoned.

Shubert Organization president and co-chief executive Robert Wankel broke the news that his company, Broadway’s largest theatre owner, had abandoned plans to build a venue in an office tower on Eighth Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets.

Though the project had never officially been declared, it had been an open secret for years. In an interview with Variety, Wankel cited construction expenses of $150 million or greater as the reason for terminating the plans.

One day later, Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, announced that he and his wife Diane von Furstenberg were pulling the plug on the Pier 55 Project. The project was described as an undulating floating island to be built on the remains of a former shipping pier in the Hudson River.

Envisioned as park with multiple performance areas and spaces, it too was sunk by a rising price tag – having already leaped from $35 million to $250 million – and opposition by a small environmental group funded by a Diller rival.

Leaving aside cost, politics, rivalries and environmental impact, it’s disappointing to lose more opportunities for culture, wherever one might find them.

A wholly new, purpose-built Broadway theatre is a rare thing. The last was the Sondheim, which retained the facade of the Henry Miller Theatre on 43rd Street.

ATG brought the Hudson Theatre back to theatrical life, but it was a vintage Broadway house, and in the spring Second Stage will bring Broadway another revitalised venue, the Helen Hayes, although it has been in frequent use for many years.

Pier 55, even before construction began, was already attracting people like Scott Rudin and George C Wolfe to set its creative agenda.

The Shed, formerly Culture Shed, is still on track for the Hudson Yards area on the West Side of Manhattan, so there’s certain to be one new venue in the next couple of years. However, The Ground Zero Arts Center, now 16 years after the tragedy that spawned its genesis, is still in the planning stages.

More intimate venues continue to spring up even as grander plans falter. The Alliance of Resident Theatres New York, a service organisation, opened new theatre spaces last year. The Flea Theatre, an Off-Off-Broadway company just opened an $18 million, three-theatre facility.

But as theatre develops beyond the formally structured proscenium houses that dominate the top of the food chain in the city (as evidenced even on Broadway by the late Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812), the question remains where that work will be seen.

If new theatres, with new amenities and configurations are struggling to get out of the starting gate, then the city will be denied the opportunity for more inventive work, even as we watch spaces such as Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s new home, with its flexible stage house, arising elsewhere.

New York will remain largely trapped inside the classic boxes of 100 years ago (or more), beautiful as they are, even as the art and perhaps audiences demand more.

This week in US theatre

At the aforementioned ART/NY Theatres, Ars Nova – where Great Comet debuted – along with Ma-Yi Theatre and Woodshed Collective presents KPOP, a new musical about South Korean pop music that sprawls throughout the building. Teddy Bergman directed the production, opening tonight, which features a book by Jason Kim and music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon.

A single mother caring for a chronically ill child is the focus of Mary Jane, the newest play from Amy Herzog. Steppenwolf regular Carrie Coon, also known from TV’s Fargo and The Leftovers, leads the cast, under the direction of Anne Kaufmann. The show opens Monday evening.

Jonno Davis makes his New York debut reprising his London performance as Alex De Large in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones. The 16-week run at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages opens Monday night.

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