Theaters of the Greenwich Village Historic District
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the designation of The Greenwich Village Historic District (GVHD). The GVHD contains a treasure-trove of history, architecture, and importantly, culture, spanning more than two hundred years. It’s been a hot-bed for creative theatrical minds since at least the beginnings of the 20th century. In fact, among the most important of the movements in American theater have been nurtured, and continue to be nurtured, right in the heart of the Village. It has been home, over the years, to countless playwrights, actors, directors, and theater folk of all stripes. Here are just some of the examples:
The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
The Cherry Lane Theatre, located on Commerce Street, a cul-de-sac in the heart of Greenwich Village, was the brainchild of poet, playwright, actress, and Villager Edna St. Vincent Millay. While most famous as a poet, Millay was originally a member of the Provincetown Players, the group which began the Provincetown Playhouse . Millay moved away from that group in 1924 to form her own experimental theater at the Cherry Lane with a group of local artists. The space they chose was a former brewery and box factory building, which dated back to 1836. The plot of land had belonged to the Gomez family farm, and on that particular parcel stood a silo prior to becoming a brewery. Since its incarnation as a theatre, it has been home to some of America’s most innovative movements in theater and theatrical literature. The Cherry Lane claims to be the space where “Off-Broadway” was born.
Despite the seminal history of the theater, the building has come under continual threat throughout the years, as is the case with much artistic space in New York City. In fact, the Cherry Lane faced demolition 17 years before historic district designation. In 1952 plans were made to erect an apartment house on the site. At that time, a group of Village residents rallied and gained ownership of the building and saved it from destruction.
In 1996, stage actress Angelina Fiordellisi saw potential in the historic landmark and raised funds to purchase and renovate the theater. She additionally bought space in a neighboring brownstone where she opened a 60-seat black box theatre now known as the Cherry Lane Studio, which serves as a creative space for emerging playwrights to test and nurture their works, carrying on the traditions set by St. Vincent Millay and her group of creative idealists.
To learn more about the Cherry Lane Theatre click here and here and here.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
St John’s in the Village suffered a catastrophic fire in the 1970s, destroying the previous church building on this site. The congregation decided to build a new church along with diverse performance and exhibition spaces to conform with its newly created mission statement which committed St John’s “to facilitate a continuing dialogue between the Christian faith and the artistic professions, acknowledging in this encounter that we share in common the enterprise of interpreting life, of advancing the quest for truth, and of reaching a fresh vision of reality.” The theater space at 224 Waverly Place has been home to Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater since 1994. Founded by Gary Bonasorte and Davis van Asselt, Rattlestick is an Obie-Award winning theatre that has developed and produced over 100 World Premieres in the past 23 seasons, including St. Vincent’s Project: Novenas for a Lost Hospital, an immersive play which Village Preservation is very proud to be a partner in creating. It will have its premiere on September 5th, 2019.
Greenwich House Theater
27 Barrow Street
Opened in 1917 as the Greenwich House Theater, Greenwich House’s Children Theater program occupied the space beginning in 1921. For over 65 years, under the leadership of children’s author and playwright Helen Murphy, the theater not only provided a constructive outlet for children of the area’s mostly Italian immigrant families, but its productions received widespread recognition. Beginning in the 1970s, a series of professional theater companies began operating in the space. The now-defunct Sanctuary Theatre, whose members included voice artist Rip Torn and film star Geraldine Page, began productions in 1979. In 1985, Soho Rep. moved in, followed by the non-profit Drama Dept. in the 1990s. Since 2003, the theater has been occupied by the Barrow Street Theatre. The Theatre will soon be home to the upstart company, ArsNova, which, among other groundbreaking pieces, produced the phenomenal Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. “For over 100 years, Greenwich House has fostered community through the arts, and we’re excited to bring Ars Nova into the fold,” said Roy Leavitt, the Executive Director of Greenwich House. “Not only does Ars Nova have a strong vision for the Greenwich House Theater, but they also have a track record of fostering new artists and creating diverse audiences. We’re looking forward to partnering with them on new initiatives for theater lovers of all ages.”
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
The Lucille Lortel Theatre was originally built in 1926 as a 590-seat movie theater called the New Hudson, and was later known as Hudson Playhouse. It began its life as an off-Broadway theatre in 1953 and was called Theatre de Lys. It famously was the place where The Threepenny Opera opened in 1954 and, but for a very short hiatus, played until 1961; a record-setting run at that time. In 1955, financier Louis Schweitzer acquired the building as an anniversary present for his wife, actress-producer Lucille Lortel. In 1981, the year of her 81st birthday, the theatre was renamed in her honor.
124 Bank Street
The HB Studio (the acting studio of renowned theatre artists Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen) was already a thriving fixture in the New York City cultural landscape when in 1965 Berghof and Hagen realized their dream of establishing a theatre. From his work on the film Cleopatra, Berghof earned the money to purchase the one-story garage, formerly a stable, that was converted into an 80-seat performance space. That building, along with the adjacent brownstone at 122 Bank Street, was renovated with the help of many unpaid friends who did everything from painting walls to scouring floors. An anonymous donor provided professional lighting and sound systems for the theatre. The brick Italianate residence at 122 was built in 1868.
For over fifty years, dedicated volunteers have made it possible for the HB Theatre to present over 250 full productions, countless staged readings, and many other theatrical events. Professional actors, directors, and designers of the highest caliber donate their time and talents for the productions. They do so because at the HB Theatre they have both artistic freedom and the luxury of allowing the work to evolve at whatever pace is necessary for the play.
AMONG THOSE THAT ARE GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
The Actors’ Playhouse
92 7th Avenue South
The Actors’ Playhouse was a wedge-shaped 170-seat playbox at 92 Seventh Avenue South, just below Sheridan Square. The entrance was down a short flight of stairs, and then you went up. It was a little like going to a speakeasy. Among the many, many groundbreaking plays that were produced there over the years was Fortune and Men’s Eyes — a tough, purgative drama set in a brutalizing Canadian detention center for young miscreants. It was the recipient of rave reviews. The playwright was a young Canadian named John Herbert, the primary producer was a socially aware publicity man — and Greenwich Villager — named David Rothenberg.
Sheridan Square Playhouse and Circle Repertory Theater
97 7th Avenue South
The Circle Repertory Company originally named the Circle Theater Company, ran from 1969 to 1996. It was founded on July 14, 1969, in a second-floor loft at Broadway and 83rd Street by director Marshall Mason, playwright Lanford Wilson, director Rob Thirkield, and Actress Tanya Berezin, all of whom were veterans of the Caffe Cino. The plan was to establish a pool of artists — actors, directors, playwrights, and designers — who would work together in the creation of plays. In 1974 The New York Times acclaimed Circle Rep as the “chief provider of new American plays.”
Originating in the 1960s, a time when many experimental theaters arose, this company outlasted many others. The Company moved their home to the Sheridan Square Playhouse at 97 Seventh Avenue South in the early 1970s and performed there through 1994. (In the early 1980s the name Sheridan Square Playhouse was dropped in favor of Circle Repertory Theatre). The company closed its doors in 1996 after 27 years.
The Charles Ludlam Theater
1 Sheridan Square
A significant chapter in the Village’s extensive theater history belongs to The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Founded in 1967 by dramatist, actor and agent provocateur Charles Ludlam, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company (RTC) was part of the theatrical genre, the Theater of the Ridiculous. This was an American movement that started in 1965 with its beginnings in John Vaccaro and Ronald Tavel’s “The Play-House of the Ridiculous.” Ludlam performed and wrote for The Play-House but, following a dispute with Vaccaro, broke with the group and founded RTC. Over the next twenty years, Ludlam and RTC led the countercultural theatre scene in the West Village and would change theater in America for the next generation.
The theater still exists at 1 Sheridan Square. The Axis Theater Company currently resides there.
The Greenwich Village Follies
220 West 4th Street
220 West 4th Street was home to the Greenwich Village Follies.
The 500-seat Greenwich Village Theatre was once located across from Sheridan Square on the west side of Seventh Avenue South between Christopher & West 4th Streets. Built by architect Herman Lee Meader (a favorite of ours) for the Greenwich Village Players, the theatre opened in 1917. The original Greenwich Village Follies premiered here two years later. The Follies was a variety revue that featured songs like “I’m the Hostess of a Bum Cabaret!” and “Why Be an Industrial Slave When You Can Be Crazy?” Martha Graham was a dancer and choreographer in the Follies. Tony Sarge, who later made the first giant balloons for the Macy’s parade, produced a ballet with puppets there. Interestingly, another hit here was Sinclair Lewis’ satire Hobohemia.
Sadly, the theatre enjoyed only a brief 13-year lifespan; demolished in 1930, it was replaced a year later with the two-story taxpayer that occupies the site today.