Hundreds of people attended a virtual town hall Thursday afternoon with city and state public officials to talk about how to save Off-Off Broadway. That was not the explicit topic. Hosts League of Independent Theater and Indiespace billed it as a “Small Venue Rent Forgiveness Town Hall,” with LIT organizer Guy Yedwab speaking in front of a banner that read “#CancelRent,” and some in-depth discussion of current state bills that would “forgive” commercial tenants (such as theaters) from paying their rent during the crisis.
But the two-hour Zoom meeting, accompanied by a busy chat among artists and administrators, went far beyond that one problem and the specific proposed legislative solution.
“This is an existential crisis for all of you,” said City Councilmember James G. Van Bramer, chair of the Council’s committee on cultural affairs. “There is no City of New York without artists.” Van Bramer was one of some half dozen public officials to discuss ideas and proposed legislation. Van Bramer’s most memorable idea – allowing theaters to perform in the streets, an expansion of the proposal already introduced to expand sidewalk cafes to allow restaurants to reopen.
Among the bills discussed:
The State Legislature has two bills that would “forgive” commercial rent (including for theaters), since they are unable to occupy the buildings nor collect any revenue from them. The difference is in the duration of the forgiveness.
Senate Bill S8190A (Sponsor: State Senator Julia Salazar) / Assembly Bill A10318A (State Assemblymember Joseph R. Lentol – Complete rent forgiveness during the COVID crisis and all future public emergencies.
But of course there are many questions: When will they have to pay, and will it be all of the back rent? If not, how will the landlords pay their property taxes?
Evictions have been suspended until August 20. A State bill would prevent evictions through six months after the crisis ends:
- Senate Bill S8192A (Sponsor: State Senator Brad Hoylman) / Assembly Bill A10290A (Sponsor: Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz)
- Assembly Bill A10387 (Sponsor:Assemblymember Harvey Epstein)
A State bill would require insurers to pay for lost income during COVID-19 even if it was previously excluded from the policy, formally referred to as business interruption insurance coverage
The State Legislature has a bill that would allow commercial tenants (such as those renting a theater) to walk away from their lease before its end date during a state of emergency
- Assembly Bill A10471 (Sponsor: Assemblymember Harvey Epstein)
During the discussion, though, there was almost always a caveat. As State Senator Brad Hoylman put it: “We need federal support, first. If we don’t get federal support, we have to come up with our own revenue.”
For all the greater attention that Broadway and Off-Broadway get, it’s the independent/aka Off-Off Broadway theaters (those with fewer than 99 seats) that “produce the majority of live performance in NYC per year,” as the League of Independent Theaters is fond of pointing out, citing a 2019 study by the city.
And the pandemic arguably puts them at the greatest risk of being able to survive the crisis.
“I’ve been running venues in the East Village since 1997,” said Erez Ziv of Frigid NY. “Every season we can barely pay the artists. Now we’ve been closed for two and a half months, we don’t know when we’re going to open, and when we do open, it’s going to be at maybe 30 percent capacity? It’s just not a way that we can survive. We’re going to need some support from on high to make sure that it’s not over.”
“We need more than rent or mortgage support,” said Ximena Garnica, co-artistic director of the Brooklyn-based LEIMAY Ensemble. “We need a full bailout.”
“The arts are NOT an expendable luxury, but get treated as one. They are a core part of our economy,” said Jennifer Malbuisson (who introduced herself with the sort of word collage familiar to those who work Off-Off Broadway: “IATSE Local 751 Apprentice/former Dir of Box Office Operations at FIAF/Stage & FOH Manager of the Ten Foot Rat Cabaret at USM/Frigid NYC volunteer.”) “A small venue’s presence in a community supports restaurants, and retail. We have to support them.”
To participants in the Town Hall like Virginia Louloudes, executive director, Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, what’s happening is a crisis that demands action, but also allows for opportunity.
“This is a moment in time when we can look at all systems to create a more equitable, just, diverse, inclusive and accessible society! It has to come from all stakeholders, from top down!”
Panelists at the Town Hall:
- Senator Brad Hoylman, District 27
- Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, 74th District
- Assembly Member Robert Carroll, 44th District
- Jimmy Van Bramer, Deputy Speaker of the New York City Council
- Delsenia Glover, Deputy Public Advocate for Housing Equity
- Justin Kantor, Vice President of NIVA (National Independent Venue Association)