When Theater for the New City (TNC) moved to 155 First Avenue in the East Village, there were no luxury condominiums, like the 12-story tower that now stands behind it, in walking distance. It was 1987, and the building, constructed by Robert Moses in 1938 as The First Avenue Retail Market, was filled with garbage and rats. The mortgage was $717, 000.
On Saturday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning community cultural center celebrated the fact that it is now debt-free, with performances, the opening of an art exhibit, and a ceremonial burning of the mortgage onstage (in a pan, to ensure the building TNC finally owns did not burn down with it).
"The economic downturn scared us," Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director of TNC, said. "It made us realize that Theater for the New City must have a guaranteed home, since we are a home for so many emerging artists: writers, directors, actors and theater companies."
The Peg Santvoord Foundation kicked off a campaign to pay off TNC's mortgage in 2010 by donating $30,000. Over 200 donors mobilized to contribute the remainder of the money, the final $45,000 of which was paid off this year. Other major donors included Gerald Rupp, Aviva Spring, Betsy von Furstenberg, Daniel Rose, and Nesbitt Blaisdell.
At Saturday's debt-free ceremony, The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers blessed the space, as they did when TNC first moved into its now-permanent home. Composer, conductor, and guy-who-plays-a-ton-of-instruments David Amram performed several songs with his son, Adam Amram, on conga drums. Playwright Charles Busch (The Allergist's Wife), who produced three of his plays with TNC, gave a celebratory speech, as did the City's Assistant Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Kathleen Hughes, Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie (Bag Lady), and Donn Russell of the Peg Santvoord Foundation. City Council Member Rosie Mendez, who represents the district in which the theater is located, presented an offcial proclamation that TNC is debt free, and David Czyzyk, Community Liaison for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, presented a second proclamation from his boss, declaring January 26 "Theater for the New City Appreciation Day" in the borough of Manhattan.
TNC produces 30 to 40 premieres of new American plays per year, at least 10 of which are by emerging and young playwrights. Many of theater's heavy-hitters found TNC's Resident Theater Program instrumental to their careers, among them Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard (Buried Child), playwright Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project), Obie Award-winning playwright/directors Richard Foreman (Idiot Savant) and Maria Irene Fornes (Promenade and The Successful Life ), Tony Award-winning playwright Miguel Piñero (Short Eyes, film actor Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious), actor and comedian Oscar Nuñez (The Office), playwright/poet/author Laurence Holder (Zora Neale Hurston), playwright Romulus Linney (True Crimes), film actor Robert Patrick (Gangster Squad) and Academy Award-winning actors Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) and Adrien Brody (The Pianist). TNC also presents plays by theater companies who have no permanent home and runs many free festivals. TNC productions have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and over 42 Obie Awards for excellence in every theatrical discipline.
While Field rejoiced in the progress her organization has made over the years, she made one thing clear: TNC still relies on its patrons.
"We're debt free, but we're still a poor theater," she said.