The Resurgence of Live Theater in the West Village
By Dan Bianchi
Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, downtown alternative theatre in all sorts of variations and venues was thriving like never before, even compared to the early 20th century of Eugene O’Neill and the Provincetown Theater off Washington Square. On the Eastside, the most prominent of all experimental theaters was the Public Theater under the leadership of its founder Joseph Papp. Theatergoers from around the world were lured to this mecca and they lined up from 4 p.m. each day to fill the many theaters within that fantastic building each night where they were introduced to ground-breaking plays and musicals devised by new playwrights, directors and thespians who had become gods to young theater makers and critic alike.
There wasn’t much delineation then between Off and Off-Off Broadway productions. There were so many critics and newspapers out there that almost any show was destined to get reviewed. The alternative arts scene gave rise to several newspapers and magazines dedicated almost exclusively to what was happening below 14th Street. Even The New York Times and other major papers were sure to cover, not to mention “list,” what couldn’t be seen on Broadway stages.
As for venues, there were still many legitimate houses downtown, big and small, but the true experiments found their way into all kinds of spaces which became targets for the more adventurous audiences. Like their fellow fine artists who carved a whole new world of downtown galleries out of deserted warehouses and lofts in what became fashionable Soho, theater artists found ways to create their innovations in store fronts, playgrounds and even apartments, which drew curious patrons from all over the world. It seemed that the foreign press was just as interested in what was soon becoming the nexus of, not just New York, but American unconventional stage art.
Having lived in the West Village for 45 years, I was part of that period serving as Artistic Director of several theater companies right in my own neighborhood. It was an exciting time to be surrounded by nearly 21 theaters within walking distance. From Circle in the Square to the Circle Repertory to The Actors Playhouse and my own companies located in The VanDam Theater and Westbeth Arts Center, I made the rounds on a continual basis back when one could actually work for a pittance, yet imagine incredible inventions on non-traditional stages come to life with the help of dozens of comrades volunteering to aid in each birth.
True, New York City, back then, was a much more dangerous place than it is now—it was known as the “murder capital of the world.” It was much dirtier, meaner and rat-infested where stinking garbage piles rose neck high. There wasn’t a tree to be seen. The subways were as dark as coal mines. The city always welcomed newcomers only to chase most of them back to where they came from a year later. NYC became a challenge for even the hardiest of urban survivalists.
But, on those streets and down in the tunnels, the performers came to entertain the residents of New York. They sang their hearts out to Beatles’ tunes and Doo Wop as good as the original tunes, while amazing young artists decorated sidewalks to look like the Sistine Ceiling. Classical violinists and steel-drum musicians were able to make a living from tips from appreciative audiences passing by on their way to work. Whole bands and quartets and performance artists showed up at certain areas in the Village on a regular basis drawing crowds of amazed tourists. We residents just took all of it for granted.
Flash forward to the current times—when most of the above have disappeared from our neighborhood. The last few mayors made sure of that. Giuliani nearly outlawed musicians and artists from performing free to the public above and below ground. Bloomberg cleaned up the streets and planted trees. And no matter how much we complain about violence and rats, both of which are here for the next millennium, they are nowhere near as bad as previous decades. As the economy soared, so did real estate prices and artists of all kinds have found it very hard to survive in this area anymore. When it comes to culture, local government will always favor big business, landlords and real estate developers.
The Soho art scene has been replaced by Bloomingdales and Old Navy stores. The once famous theaters of the West Village are now condominiums and restaurants. Even the tour buses have stopped coming to this neighborhood. Nothing much to see.
Until now! The area around Sheridan Square and Christopher Street is alive and well with fantastic theater companies. They include the newly-acquired Cherry Lane Theater, Rattlestick, IRT, Red Bull at the Lucille Lortel theater, New Ohio, Axis Company, The Players Theater, Minetta Lane Theater, Soho Playhouse, Ars Nova at Greenwich House and of course, my own company now celebrating 20 years in the West Village, Radiotheatre which opens The 14th Annual Edgar Allan Poe Festival, May 17-27 at our home for the past seven years, the 205-year-old St. John’s Sanctuary. Without their help all these years we wouldn’t have been able to survive even through a pandemic.
But, thanks to our benefactor, our own future is bright, and we now join the other companies above in returning great theater to our community, as well as to the rest of the world.
Radiotheatre’s 14th Annual EDGAR ALLAN POE FESTIVAL
81 Christopher St. off 7th Ave.