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Plans for a new play center in the heart of New York’s theatre district, and a report from Equity.

High Hopes

It’s been on the drawing board for nearly five years. But hopes are high this month among a group of New York theatre supporters that a national showcase for resident theatres may become a reality.

The expectations center on the historic New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street, built in 1903 and for many years the premier musical comedy theatre in New York. The 42nd Street Development Corporation (the nonprofit group responsible for developing the strip of Off Broadway playhouses known as Theatre Row) has an ambitious plan for the New Amsterdam. It entails renovating the theatre’s famous Art Nouveau roof garden, now fallen into disrepair, and installing a new 700-seat theatre.

The theatre would serve to showcase productions from regional companies that, because of prohibitive economics, might not otherwise get a chance to play in New York. The project, known as the National Theatre Center, would be funded with $6 million in public and private funds.

“We can invite the plays in and pay to produce them,” explains Fred Papert, president of the development group. “If the plays are successful, the profits can be shared with the originating companies.” Papert has been negotiating with the Nederlander Organization, which acquired the New Amsterdam in 1982, about plans for the restoration and an agenda that would make the theatre viable for both commercial and nonprofit uses. A “small-scale eclectic Lincoln Center” is what Papert hopes to create.

Robert Moss, former Playwrights Horizons artistic director and the producer who would run the center, agrees that “there is a body of work out there that perhaps is not right for Broadway but that does have a longer life inherent in it and wider audience potential than what it would have in its hometown.”

The romance of the New Amsterdam and its colorful history adds to the project’s appeal. Though it had faded into a Kung Fu movie palace in recent years and was closed for business a year ago, the extravagantly appointed building once featured shows by George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. It was the home of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1918 to 1927. The rooftop theatre, once the site of Florenz Ziegfeld’s midnight frolic supper club, had a movable stage, glass balconies and rainbow lighting. The theatre is both a New York City landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Economic tangles, the mechanics of community involvement and bureaucratic red tape have kept the project moving slowly. But the city’s Board of Estimate is considering the project again and the discussions with the Nederlanders appear to be positive.

“We’ve faced scheduling problems, structural problems, financial problems, and we’re finding solutions to all of them.” Papert ventured in September. “We’re plowing on with our fingers crossed.”

Equity Reports Work Rise

The system is “working,” claims Actors’ Equity Association’s Off-Off Broadway Codes Committee head Lynn Oliver, pointing to a recent survey of paid employment for union members under New York’s Mini contract, Off Broadway contract and Letter of Agreement.

Oliver’s report stated that Equity-approved Showcases caused the rise in paid employment and increased the number of New York actor work weeks by 268 percent in five years—from 7,627 weeks in 1978-79 to 10,177 in 1982-83 under the Off Broadway contract, and from 3,917 to 5.250 weeks under the Mini and LOA combined.

According to Equity, the strict limit on the number of performances permitted under the Showcase Code necessitates conversions to AEA contracts for extended runs. The number of conversions to Mini contracts of LOAs reached 18 by the end of May for the 1983-84 season, compared with 17 for the entire season the year before. At the same time, the number of Showcase productions has declined sharply, from 825 in 1978-79 to 558 in 1982-83, presumably as a result of Equity’s stiffening of rules several years ago that caused most permanent nonprofit theatres to upgrade their operations to Minis, Off Broadway contracts or LOAs.

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