Saving New York Independent Theater: An Update

If you think that reopening has solved the problems of New York’s theaters and theater artists, listen up:

“We’re talking about life and death: The life and death of our neighborhoods; the life and death of our culture,” Olympia Kazi, of NYC Artist Coalition.

“Without a doubt, the community of working artists in New York is at a tipping point,” Jenny Dubnau, of the Artist Studio Affordability Project.

“The small theater industry faces increasing challenges from rising operation costs,” Guy Yedwab, of the League of Independent Theater, .

They all testified recently at a virtual hearing of the New York City Council in support of a bill that would establish commercial rent regulation. These artists and art advocates were among a handful of the hundred or so people who debated the bill in a hearing that lasted close to seven hours. They are arguably part of an awakening arts workers movement that is addressing the continuing challenges in the era of COVID-19 — an era that isn’t over.

“The illusion of reopening is that we’re back where we were in February of 2020,” says Yedwab, the president of L.I.T., a 12-year-old organization whose membership includes 32 venues, about 60 companies, and some three hundred individual theater artists who work Off Off Broadway (in theaters with 99 seats or fewer.) “The reality is that in the meantime, there’s been incredible damage that has happened.”

In January, I wrote a post laying out the actions and proposals on a city, state and federal level to save New York theater. Below is an update — what officials have done or are now planning to do to address the damage…or what advocates think they should do.

Artists and arts advocates who testified for the commercial rent regulation bill (see captions at bottom of post)

New York City

Back Rent and Commercial Rent Stabilization

“The main short term problem for theaters is the back rent,” Yedwab says. Two different theaters have told him that their landlords have demanded they pay the $300,000 they owe, now that theaters have reopened. But the problems that theaters have with the spaces they rent are broader than back rent, and older than the pandemic era, as Christina Perry of Chain Theatre testified: “Our company is no stranger to the vicious nature of New York City real estate. We built and renovated our first space (when Hurricane Sandy hit) in Long Island City only to have our landlord break our lease, reduce the theatre to rubble and put up luxury condos. Now in our new space we find ourselves once again at the mercy of our landlords.”

Just today, the Lark, the prestigious incubator of new plays, announced that it would shutter its doors after 27 years , in part because the landlord for its midtown space threatened to nearly double the rent —  “as the organization struggled to meet pre-pandemic funding levels.”

Back in 2019, Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn) introduced (Intro 1796), which would do for Mom and Pop retailers in the city what rent regulation currently does for New York’s tenants. It would establish a Commercial Rent Guidelines Board responsible for setting the rate by which a landlord could increase the rent for certain commercial spaces from lease to lease., including small theaters.

The bill now has 24 sponsors in the City Council, a body that has 52 members; Only a few more ayes will establish the first commercial rent regulation in New York City since 1964. (It’s worth pointing out that a new City Council takes office in January, 2022. If the bill doesn’t pass into law by then, the number of sponsors now is moot.)

Reopening Guidance

The city’s new vaccination requirement, the Key to NYC Program. raises several questions about how independent theaters will administer the program, “particularly,” Yedwab says, “the thorny questions about religious and medical exemptions.” Larger theaters, Off Broadway and certainly on Broadway, have paid staff who could dedicate their time and effort to figure out what to do about somebody who claims a religious exemption. The chances are great that the “staff” interacting with this patron in an Off-Off Broadway theater is a part-time volunteer. “We need some clear guidance from the city.”

Open Culture Program

from “Touch”

At the end of last year, the New York City Council unanimously passed the Open Culture program into law, to allow performers to apply for permits to stage ticketed shows outdoors. Since March, Open Culture has provided more than 450 outdoor performances in public spaces, which was especially critical while indoor theaters were shuttered. (An example of one such show I attended: “Touch” by the theater company Blessed Unrest, on a roped-off East 26th Street, just north of Madison Square Park.) 

Now, Councilmember James Van Bramer, chair of the council’s cultural affairs committee, is looking to make the program permanent (Intro 2398-2021). The new bill would also expand the number of streets available, and make more individual artists eligible to apply.

A public hearing will be held to consider this expansion on October 19th at 9:00 AM by the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management (which administers the program.)

New York State

Eviction Moratorium Extended

In September, new Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law a new moratorium on COVID-related residential and commercial evictions for New York State which is in effect until January 15, 2022. It extended the moratorium that had expired.

Rent Relief Rescue Fund

At the beginning of the year, the state legislature had introduced a flurry of bills that would include protection for small theaters and theater artists — “Save Our Storefronts” bill A10901 (S8865, which would forgive most of the theater owner’s (and other store owners’) rent, with compensation to the landlord for the lost rent; proposals for rent forgiveness (eg Senate Bill S8125A); for requiring insurers to pay for lost income during COVID-19  (Senate Bill S8211A); for allowing 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)

There has been no movement on any of those bills, largely because then-Governor Andrew Cuomo created a rent relief rescue fund in the state’s budget — $800 million for for-profit businesses, and $40 million for non-profit (which include Off-Off Broadway theaters.) “It was very frustrating to have the aid to the non-profit community so substantially pared down at the finish line,” Yedwab says, “and we’re still pushing to get more relief to our community that is still struggling under the weight of back-rent.”

Federal Government

Save Our Stages 

The bill was signed into law last December as part of the  nearly $900 billion stimulus package . promising to provide $16 billion worth of grants for the entertainment/cultural industry nationwide, Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Operators Grants. But the delay in actually processing the individual grant applications has caused great frustration and anxiety. Last Wednesday, the original sponsors of the law, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), introduced the “SOS Extension Act,” which would extend the timeline for using the grants from the end of 2021 to the Spring of 2023. As Variety reports, the move is inspired by the long delay between the passage of the bill in December and the theaters actually getting the funds.

The Creative Economy Revitalization Act

“Before the pandemic, nearly 100 thousand New Yorkers worked in the arts, and the industry generated $7.4 billion in wages, and helped draw 67 million tourists and generate $70 billion of economic activity. But in 2020, more than six in ten arts workers lost their jobs, and six in ten arts businesses shut down altogether.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) spoke Monday at a press conference in front of the Public Theater, not just to lament the damage, but to promote a solution, a bill called the Creative Economy Revitalization Act (CERA), CERA is Inspired by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, that created, among other government-funded back-to-work programs, the Federal Theatre Project. The bill, introduced into the House in August by Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM) and Jay Obernolte (R-CA) and in the Senate last Monday by Senator Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM). It would put artists to work through commissions and grants, creating art for the public.

“When the arts faced similar challenges during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration,” Gillibrand said at the rally, calling CERA “a WPA for today’s artists…It would make 300 million dollars of grant funding available to government, non-profit and other groups to create everything from free concert series, dance performances and photography exhibits to murals, poetry, plays, and stories….These projects would help us reinvigorate the struggling arts sector, create arts jobs, and make art and culture accessible to everyone – as they should be.”

Captions of the photographs above (in case you can’t read them in the photograph)

Top row left to right:

Tre McManus, a circus performer: This eastward progression of art is a tale as old as time: Williamsburgh, East Williamsburgh, Bushwick, East Bushwick. Now I’m in Ridgewood living in East New York because I keep on getting priced out of my neighborhood

Sophia Harrison, of Art House, which supplies “culture, self-esteem and self-confidence for the children of Coney Island
…Unlike the large business and franchises that have come and left our low-income community because there is a lack of profit,
Small businesses and not-for-profits stay to create a better quality of life for these residents.” 

Rachel Nicollazzo, artist landlord with two buildings in Williamsburgh. “The reason I bought buildings was for self-defense, against the music business and rent increase. Allow the small businesses to own the buildings so they can control the space. Live-work rental spaces for artists.”

Middle row

Olympia Kazi, “We’re talking about more than dollars and cents. We’re talking about life and death….”

Musician Marc Ribot
A lot of the commercial spaces of the greatest value were created by the cultural work of artists, musicians. Build a city that values its culture, that values something other than the market

Jesse G. Galvez, who has to move his four times in 46 years
The current formula only gives Mom and Pop businesses three options – pay, move, or close your store

Bottom row

Jenny Dubnau, “Without a doubt, the community of working artists in New York is at a tipping point, with virtually no affordable industrial neighborhoods left in the city. Many working artists, dance troupes and musicians and theaters are losing their spaces, and some are leaving New York.”

Guy Yedwab, from League of Independent Theater “Our city’s storefront churches, food pantries and cultural spaces are just as burdened by commercial rents as our beloved bodegas and restaurants.”

Gregory Youdan, from Dance/NYC
“We’re are aware of at least 24 dance organizations that have closed during the pandemic, but this has been happening before the pandemic”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply