Saturday, March 31, 2007

Edith O'Hara and the 13th Street Repertory

OK, so this has nothing to do with blocks or real estate or history, but I wrote it and it tells a sad story of how real estate continues to steamroll over the small and wonderful institutions that make New York--and especially Downtown--special.

The Final Curtain for the 13th Street Repertory?
A fixture of downtown fights for its life
By David Crohn

If Edith O’Hara wanted, she could be very, very rich. But even $2 million is an empty and useless sum to the woman who has spent 35 years on the 13th Street Repertory Theater. To her, the theater is irreplaceable.

O’Hara is fighting the battle of her life fighting for her theater. Her building’s co-owners want to evict the company to make millions in the cutthroat world of Manhattan real estate. That would close the curtain for a place that has not only hosted the longest running Off-Off Broadway play in American history, but has cultivated young talent since its inception in 1972. The company’s most famous export has been Israel Horowitz’s “Line” for the past 33 years, but it’s only one of hundreds that have been performed there, from children’s theater to informal workshops to works by giants like Tennessee Williams.

“The place is a fixture,” said Horowitz, 68, from his East Village home just a few blocks from the theater. “When kids come to New York to be actors—and they come by the boxcar—the first shock is ‘What now what do I do?’ Edith has created this place where kids can find a home. I can’t name another place in New York City like that.”

Small-Town Girl
Born in 1917 on a farm in the wilds of northern Idaho, educated in a one-room schoolhouse, O’Hara still displays the plucky spirit of a small-town girl. In an interview with Our Town Downtown, she recalled with fondness the day when, in the seventh grade, the theater bug bit her.

“I didn’t know anything about acting, but the teacher put me in a production where I played George Washington,” she said. “And that was it for me. I just thought, ‘This is the greatest.’”

From then on she acted whenever she could, eventually finding her way to the University of Idaho and a drama degree.

But shortly after graduation, she says, her path changed. Her true calling revealed itself: she would work behind the scenes as an artistic director and teacher, in order to nurture the creativity in others. “Creativity in the world is so important,” O’Hara said; so many people in the world have “creativity in their souls and it’s suppressed and not given attention and they don't even know they have it.”

By 1970, she had formed a summer stock for teenagers in Pennsylvania, the Plowright Players, and was touring with a successful musical called “Touch.” The production brought her to New York City and a now-defunct theater on East Fourth Street. After it closed, in 1971, her three kids had established their own careers in the arts—her daughter Jenny has a recurring role as Doug Heffernan’s mother on “The King of Queens—and her husband John had passed away. She decided to stay in the city and found her own theater company.

A yearlong search brought her to 13th Street, via an ad in The Village Voice. She saw the building, a five-story brownstone between 5th and 6th Avenues, and thought, “This is it.” She’s been living and working there ever since. Every morning she walks down the steps to the ground floor, a cozy office and living room crowded with worn-in chairs and a kitchen with an old-fashioned icebox. She hosts journalists like me, along with interns and actors and aspiring playwrights. She hands every young person she meets a tattered three-ring binder and has them fill out a questionnaire with their contact information, skills and aspirations. They are asked to answer the question, What got you interested in theater?

The book is mostly full, but there is plenty of room left, plenty of blank pages remaining to be filled.

Lines Are Drawn
For 10 years Edith and her budding company leased the space. It was cheap back then, so cheap that although she can’t remember the rent, she knows they never had trouble paying it. In 1982 she and her daughter Jenny decided to buy the place. They began the hunt for a partner to help raise the $100,000 down payment to buy the $400,000 space. A Cleveland investor named Gordon Milde showed up. He came from seemingly out of nowhere, and was so affable, agreeable and enthusiastic, that they named their new partnership White Knight Ltd. “He was like our white knight in shining armor,” O’Hara said.

But things with Milde soured quickly. He revealed not only his true intentions—the burgeoning gold mine of Manhattan real estate—but turned out to be a personally difficult person.

Milde owned half of the building, with Edith and the company owning a quarter each. When attempts to buy O’Hara out so he could sell to developers proved futile, Milde became cantankerous—even while gradually paying off the mortgage on the building. O’Hara says he started by evicting members of the company who lived upstairs, then left threatening phone messages. In the early 90s he was caught stealing from O’Hara’s apartment, and she was forced to slap him with a restraining order.

Milde returned to Cleveland, and two years ago faded from the picture by selling his shares in the building to Steven and Beth Lowenthal, for “a song”: less than a million dollars, nowhere near what they were worth. Jenny and her husband managed to raise enough money to buy them not long ago, but the Lowenthals backed out of the deal at the last minute.

O’Hara and the Lowenthals are at a standoff. They offered her a million dollars to back off, then doubled it. But she refuses to sell her shares, and they can’t make her. An eviction notice is pending, as the Repertory’s litigation—which challenges the validity of Milde’s original sale of his shares to the Lowenthals—continues.
According to O’Hara and Mitchell Zingman, the Repertory’s attorney, the Lowenthals are in talks with the owners of the building next door to the west to sell them the air rights. And the Rep’s home, 50 West 13th Street, is worth $5 million according to a recent appraisal.

The Shows Go On
As the legal battle continues, so does the life of the theater. Though she tears up when telling her story, which could end with the Rep’s final curtain, O’Hara is tireless in her old age. She is a kind of den mother to the people who come here seven days a week—to study acting, to rehearse and perform and to learn the behind-the-scenes, technical end of drama production.

Every Friday and Saturday night at 9:30pm, the theater, with its 50 seats and fantastic acoustics, shows “Line,” whose spare intensity, absurdist premise and painfully funny slapstick make it reminiscent of the Irish Playwright Samuel Beckett, who Horowitz knew personally.

“Line” opens with an unkempt and grimy young man sleeping on stage. He wakes up, breakfasts on potato chips and Budweiser, and stands at attention: he is first on line. Characters are introduced one by one to the stage, and begin to wrangle for first place. It is never revealed what they are waiting for; it’s not even clear if the characters themselves know. As they use their wits, fists and sex to get up front, the play's ambiguous—and ambivalent—take on race, capitalism and the sexual revolution quietly thrill the small audiences who come week after week.

When asked why he thinks “Line” has survived so long in the same place, Horowitz is mystified, although pleased that he has been able to help the Repertory in his own small way. He hasn’t accepted royalties from the performances for years, despite the fact that it’s been popularly received by audiences in 30 languages all over the world.

But still, Horowitz can understand “Line”’s appeal. “It’s a real downtown type of play,” he said, referring to its minimal set—just a piece of adhesive tape on the floor—and brazen take on feminine sexuality. And any New Yorker can relate to the play’s themes of ceaseless competition in an indifferent and chaotic world. I asked Horowitz if this was his intended theme, and he replied only by quoting Beckett: “Having a playwright describe his play would be like a snail describing its shell.”

Ronald Washington is a 27-year-old Virginia native who joined the cast of “Line” a few weeks ago. This is his third appearance Off Off Broadway, but he said he found the atmosphere at the Rep to be uniquely welcoming.

“It’s just nice being here,” he said. “Edith is a lovely woman. She has been a very nice person as far as getting me up to speed with the show and offering me sound advice.”

Like most other people interviewed for this article, Washington was eager to mention that he’d “hate to see the theater get shut down,” and not just because it would end his indefinite run as Dolan, one of the play’s fiercest and richly layered characters. Behind the scenes, he said, “It’s a very inviting environment for an actor. A lot of times [when you join an ongoing production] you’re beholden to however things were going, but here they take your creativity into account.”
Laurie Bell, 24, a student of stage management and design at Lehman College, interns on 13th Street a few hours a week. She said that when it came time to look for an internship, she was immediately drawn to the 13th Street Repertory.

“I chose this one because it seemed like it would be small and intimate,” she said—and it was. “I walked in and immediately felt like I had been here before. I know I’ll get to wear a lot of hats, which is just what I was looking for.”

In addition to stage-managing the Rep’s production of “Five-Story Walkup,” Bell may get to work on a series of recently unearthed plays by Tennessee Williams. Four short one-acts, now showing on Monday and Tuesday nights, are getting their New York premiere—on the same stage where, according to O’Hara, Williams sat and said that small theaters like this one “was where the future of theater lay.”

A prescient statement from someone who died in 1983, at a time when even he was having trouble getting his work performed, even before the age of mass media conglomeration.

A Grim Outlook
O’Hara, along with her right-hand woman Sandra Nordgren, the company’s 11-year technical director, remain hopeful. But they know the outlook is grim. Legal fees continue to mount up; they exceed $100,000, Nordgren said.

Small, local art collectives like Family Tree, a group of artists, musicians, dancers and poets from Fordham, perform occasional fundraisers. And weekly classes, at about 360 dollars for a two-month term, bring in some revenue.

But at only $17 dollars for a ticket to see a show, Nordgren and O’Hara have been forced to sit on the stage and address their small audiences personally after most performances. They ask if there is anything anyone can do to help publicize their plight, any philanthropic organizations people may know of that they can contact directly. Then, a collection basket goes around. “People want to help, they come forward with good intentions, but everyone is so busy,” Nordgren said.

One option the company is just starting to explore is having the building landmarked. According to a handwritten deed dating from 1821 and an old article in The Villager newspaper, the building dates back to 1780. It may have even been a stop on the Underground Railroad, O’Hara said, pointing to a trap door in the basement that would have been used by slaves to escape to the basement.

But Underground Railroad or not, landmarking is a very long process and an unreliable opportunity. It’s the second, flimsier front in a battle that O’Hara seems determined to wage until the end.

“I don’t give up. I’m a fighter,” O’Hara said. I asked her why not just take the $2 million the Lowenthals have offered her and start a new company in a different space? She’s just “too old,” she said. And anyway, this is literally her home.

Life will go on, of course, for the Company and its players if it is evicted, and, as Horowitz says, “it’s been a lovely ride.” But, he adds, “There will be a hole. It’ll be sad to see another apartment building in New York City instead of a unique little theater.”