Theaters thrive in new or restored venues

An outdoor view of the Public Theater on An outdoor view of the Public Theater on Lafayette Street is seen in Manhattan. (Sept. 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Bloomberg

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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For the fourth time in the past 12 months, I have smelled fresh paint and watched construction workers on high ladders in preparation for the opening of a new or renovated theater. This is odd, but genuinely exciting.

And if schedules permitted, I could have been doing much the same -- or at least watched a ribbon-cutting or two -- at four more sites where many more millions of dollars are being channeled into new or restored places for more artists and theatergoers to mingle in transformed environments. This is not just odd and exciting, but definitely a bit counterintuitive.

But there I was recently, marveling through another eye-opening tour with another bright and dedicated architect, admiring the painstaking rediscovery of the original Corinthian columns and appreciating how the 21st century is being folded, carefully, into the landmarked styles of a more gracious age.

This time, it was my beloved Public Theater being scraped and primped and technologically upgraded in a $40-million revitalization. It looks familiar yet new, which is the point. Scaffolding has covered the crumbling Romanesque facade for so long that the glumness felt permanent. The lobby has been in construction hell for so many years that it had become hard to remember how Joseph Papp, who died in 1991, managed to make the big place feel buzzy with creativity.

The original structure, built in three separate sections from the 1850s to the 1890s, was first famously the Astor Library. Long before the East Village was hip, the city rented the abandoned place to Papp for $1 a year. "Hair" began here. So did "A Chorus Line." And Papp let a young choreographer have one of the theaters for what became the Eliot Feld Ballet.

Nothing has been done yet to the theaters. But Stephen Chu, associate partner at Ennead Architects (the same company that massively renovated New York City Center), tells me this might be the next step. That would be up to Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, who, at the Oct. 4 rededication, stressed the importance of the institution as a "place where everybody gathers."

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In other words, the 10 years of planning and four years of construction have focused on the entrance, the lobby, the new mezzanine where people can look down on the chandelier -- called the "Shakespeare Machine" -- with 37 spokes, one for each of his plays. Joe's Pub, the enormously successful cabaret created next door after Papp died, is now linked in with the rest of the building. David Rockwell has designed an elegant restaurant, The Library, and an expanded kitchen also will serve the Pub. And finally, restrooms are in abundance.

The entrance and the lobby are bright and inviting. The exterior restoration is gorgeous. The dull inside stairs are gone and new stairs -- what Chu tenderly calls "the stoop" -- invite people to hang around outside on an expanded sidewalk. As Eustis said at the official opening, people don't even have to buy a ticket to enjoy the place. "Buy a bagel, sit here and talk," he said. "Make it your space."

Meanwhile, in another part of town that wasn't hip before the arts discovered it, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has added a new theater -- an intimate one -- to its gathering now called the BAM Cultural District. The $50-million BAM Fisher, designed by architect Hugh Hardy, is a five-story building built on top of what was once the Salvation Army's two-story Brooklyn Citadel Corps. In addition to rehearsal space and studios, it has a 250-seat ultra-flexible theater that, according to BAM executive producer Joseph Melillo, "opens a whole range of work that we couldn't do because we lacked the appropriate venue."

The opera house seats 2,100. The BAM Harvey has a capacity of 874. "There's a level of art happening locally, nationally and internationally that we could only respond to if we had the appropriate architecture," he told me recently in a phone interview, admitting the new place has been his dream. "I think we're building a new muscle set," he said. "We're still learning the strengths of the theater. It's joyful . . . and a lot of work."

Tickets at the Fisher are just $20. This follows the important movement begun by the Signature Theatre (now in its new multi-space Frank Gehry-

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designed complex) and the Lincoln Center Theater's alternate series, LTC3, now housed in a beautiful little theater (also built by Hardy) on top of the Beaumont.

As Melillo sees it, "You can't ignore the fact that pricing has obscured many young people from having access to the performing arts zone."

He is equally aware of the new need for theaters to be places where people can hang out. "I think the younger generation migrates to a different kind of environment for its cultural life," he said. "The social reality extends to more informality, to bar service and restaurants and being with friends and other audience members." The BAM Fisher has two-level lobby for socializing and a roof garden that, according to Hardy, has views of all of Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty.

Hardy is also responsible for the Theatre for a New Audience's new $47.5-million Brooklyn playhouse, which had a groundbreaking last year. Among the boggling number of new theaters are the Pearl Theatre's relocation into the space left by the Signature. Also, the thriving avant-garde space, St. Ann's Warehouse, has relocated to 29 Jay St. when its longtime DUMBO home became prime real estate.

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How interesting, I think, that all of these new and newly rehabilitated theaters are small and intimate. And how different this is than in the '60s and '70s, when so many huge cultural centers were built around the country that the arts were accused of having an "edifice complex." Whatever you call our complex now, it can't hurt if it comes with drinks.

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