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Get Your Kicks on West 36th

A trio of Off-Off-Broadway theater groups finds that three's company in a new midtown location. logo

Giving each other a little space:
Mark Hofmaier and Susanna Frazer in Tickets, Please!
in The Workshop's recent one-act festival
Who would have thought that Manhattan's West 36th Street would become a hot spot for Off-Off Broadway theater? Part of one of the drearier districts on the island, sandwiched between chic Chelsea and bustling Times Square, West 36th has been home to office buildings, dingy dress shops, jewelers, and the occasional deli. But one building on the street that formerly housed a trade school and beauty school is now bursting with new plays.

No fewer than three theaters are setting up shop at 312 West 36th Street. The Barrow Group, Abingdon Theatre Company, and The Workshop Theater Company (formerly The 42nd Street Workshop, a moniker that is no longer valid) all have space in the newly renovated building. "We love, love it," gushes Riley Jones-Cohen, Workshop's executive director. "We've moved from a five-flight walkup to an elevator building, from an inadequate room air conditioner to a huge unit, from seats of folding chairs to seats donated by the Nederlander Organization, from a space which could not accommodate many elderly or handicapped to a space where they are welcomed. What's not to love?"

Workshop is already up and running in its new digs. "We're pretty much settled in...a few more odds and ends," says Jones-Cohen. The building itself is in semi-chaos, with the new lobby [not yet finished] and the new elevator in the process of being installed, but at least the constant drilling just outside our door is completed. And our two theaters are done and active. The Main Stage just finished two months of our one-act festivals."

The company generates new work on a weekly basis, providing playwrights the chance to see their creations in staged readings presented each weekend in the 30-seat Jewel Box Theatre. "Plays in Progress," which have had a slightly longer gestation process (many of them through Workshop's weekly Writer's Group meetings), get a two-week run while showcase productions get full, four-week runs in the 60-seat Main Stage. For its 2002 fundraising gala, the company has acquired the services of Tony Award-winner Karen Ziemba, who will host an evening of music and comedy at The Bottom Line (15 West 4th Street) on October 28, with theater notables Brent Barrett, James Brennan, Robert Cuccioli, David Garrison, Nancy Hess, Ron Raines, Valerie Wright, and more on hand to entertain.

Meanwhile, The Barrow Group -- whose mission it is to "provide audiences with affordable, engaging theater of the highest professional quality in order to enrich their lives" -- has its 99-seat venue still in the works. But the members of that company are not letting incomplete construction keep them down; the Barrow Group School, founded in 1991, is functioning on the premises, giving actors and directors opportunities to work and to explore the company's technique.

The Abingdon Theatre Company (which was The Workshop's downstairs neighbor at the companies' old space) is just now getting to show off its new mainstage with a production of Teddy Tonight!, a solo show starring Laurence Luckinbill. A smaller workshop space will soon be getting plenty of use as well as the home for Abingdon's frequently scheduled staged readings.

A view from the stage:
Abingdon's theater is still under construction
With the Zipper Theatre (which recently housed the Alan Cumming-Stephen Spinella project Elle and currently has the Michael Greif-directed Betty Rules) now open on 37th Street and the possibility of another company moving into the Workshop-Barrow-Abingdon space, the West 30s could become a new equivalent to Theater Row on 42nd Street. "There are a number of theater companies moving into this area," says Jones-Cohen, "and I believe the landlord hopes that one or two more theaters move into our building." There are advantages to sharing space with like-minded tenants: "On the business side, having three theaters all looking for longer leases than usual with other types of businesses makes it easier to negotiate with the landlord."
All three companies currently sharing 312 West 36th Street also have a shared dedication to nurturing and producing new work. "There will certainly be a synergy amongst the audiences," says Jones-Cohen. "All of us will profit from having new people see us. As far as a common mission, we are all involved in continuing to make Off-Off-Broadway theater a vital and exciting part of the arts and cultural community of New York."

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