NEW YORK CITY: Soho Rep—the Off-Off Broadway company known for experimental works by national and international playwrights—has announced that it will vacate its home of 25 years, effective immediately. Since 1991, the company has rented a performance space at 25 Walker St., known as Walkerspace, in lower Manhattan.
“It’s this very, very intense moment,” admitted artistic director Sarah Benson, “but I think it’s an exciting moment in terms of the new potential and the possibilities that open up for the company.” She added, “It happened much more quickly than any of us were expecting!”
Soho Rep began a capital campaign last spring to establish a permanent home, with plans to buy the 73-seat blackbox. But in exploring that option, the theatre’s leadership discovered that the building’s restrictions technically don’t permit many of the production activities that they’ve been engaged in for years. To wit: The building’s rules forbid the use of scenic design and mandate a maximum occupancy of 70 people, including cast and crew members. The news came as a surprise to Benson, who became artistic director of Soho Rep in 2007, and who has been producing shows with no shortage of scenic design elements and capacities over 70.
“We inherited this functioning theatre from other people who also inherited a functioning theatre,” she said. “It’s only been as we dug into the history of the space, as we’ve been looking at capital issues, that’s how it came to light.”
Though Soho Rep could theoretically make modifications to the building to be in compliance, the board decided that step would be too cost-prohibitive. So, though its lease was technically good up to March 2017, Soho Rep decided to vacate and close the Walkerspace immediately.
In its 25 years at Walkerspace, Soho Rep staged a number of high-profile productions, including the New York premiere of Blasted by Sarah Kane, and the world premiere of Uncle Vanya adapted by Annie Baker and An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. The theatre has won 18 Obies and a 2014 Drama Desk Award for sustained achievement.
Soho Rep normally produces two shows a season. The news will not affect its fall production, which is Duat by Daniel Alexander Jones, which will be mounted at the Connelly Theater in the East Village, Oct. 11-Nov. 6. Soho Rep also has yet to find a venue for its spring show, Samara by Richard Maxwell, with music by Steve Earle.
Unfortunately, though Soho Rep had no plans for Walkerspace this fall, other companies had booked shows there, including All for One Theater, whose play My Name is Gideon… by Gideon Irving was supposed to run Sept. 26–Oct. 31. “It’s a terrible day,” said AFO producing director Nicholas Cotz. But he’s trying to stay positive. “We’ll move forward and we’ll make it work. It’s theatre!”
The show was already in tech when the news broke last night to Irving and the crew of My Name is Gideon…. “We got the news around 6, 6:30 yesterday,” Cotz said. “We were in the middle of cue-to-cue. We were fully built. It’s the biggest show we’ve ever built.” After hugging and some tears, Irving did a full run-through of the one-man show and beers were passed around to the crew. The poignancy of the moment wasn’t lost on Cotz. “That’s the last thing that theatre is ever going to hear,” he lamented.
My Name is Gideon…. has cost AFO close to $90,000 thus far; Soho Rep has refunded the company its rent check, but AFO will still have to rehire the show’s crew. Soho Rep is currently working with the company to find a new space for the play. ART/New York has offered AFO one of its rent-subsidized spaces for the spring; Cotz predicted that they still might have to shop around. “This show is an installation piece; from the second you walked into Walker, there were a wall of accordions,” said Cotz. “We wanted every single piece of Walker decorated. You don’t get that at one of these newer theatres. That’s why we wanted it in the first place.” He says he’s open to offers from other spaces and some “emergency grant money.”
As for Benson and her team, the plan now is to help find a space for My Name is Gideon… and lock down one for Samara. Then they will begin a search for a new long-term home. “I think it’s the beginning of a new evolution for the company,” Benson said. “At the end of the day, I feel like theatre is about people, and it’s also the artistic legacy that we as a group have the responsibility to carry forward.”