59E59 Theaters offer an alternative to broadway
By Valerie Gladstone
Upper East Side Almost hidden on 59th Street between Park and Madison avenues, 59E59 Theaters might be overlooked but for the fact that since their founding in 2002 they have presented some of New York's most engrossing new plays.
The brainchild of their artistic director, Elysabeth Kleinhans, whose foundation owns and operates the three theaters, the snug and stylish three-story space offers Off-Broadway productions by not-for-profit companies from across the United States and around the world. It boasts two annual festivals in the two smaller theaters - Brits Off Broadway, which brings new work from British playwrights to New York, and East to Edinburgh, a preview of new plays going to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, plus it presents five plays in the largest theater ? Theater A - over the course of a year. Most plays run three to six weeks.
Coming this fall in Theater A are "Baur," the story behind the founding of the Guggenheim Museum, continuing until October 12; Walter Mosley's "Lift," about two young black professionals stuck in an elevator during a terrorist attack, from October 17-November 30; Thomas Gibbons' "Uncanny Valley," which follows the relationship between a human being and a humanoid robot, October 2-26 in Theater B; and an adaptation of James Dickey's "Deliverance" by Sean Tyler in Theater C from October 10-November 9.
Novelist and playwright Walter Mosley was happy to join the roster. "They offer lovely space and they're intent on presenting different voices," he said. "It feels more like a club."
One reason 59E59 Theaters feel different than a regular theater is that there isn't the overwhelming pressure to make money that drives most Broadway theaters. The Elysabeth Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation takes care of advertising, marketing, public relations, ticket services, maintenance of the space and technical facilities, and ticket services, in fact, everything except the rental, which for the 199-seat Theater A is only $7,000. The theater companies presenting plays pay the rent but they also take home all the box office income. "Even the smallest companies usually make money here," says executive producer Peter Tear in a recent interview, "and that inspires them to want to do more."
The feeling of intimacy also derives from the fact that that there is only a small staff. Brian Beirne serves as managing director, and Kleinhans and Tear select all the plays. "We make a good team: a woman and a man, an American and a Brit ? I am Scottish," says Tear. "So we come at things from different perspectives. We read an enormous amount of plays but there's never been any conflict between us. We feel very independent and pick and choose what we like. We're presenters not producers."
One reason he got involved with 59E59 is because over the years he had found that so many good, offbeat plays were presented in unpleasant venues. "I went to some places that were so uncomfortable," he says, "that the environment was detrimental to the work. I think we create a nice space for new plays here."
As Tear tells it, 59East59thSt had a serendipitous beginning. The owners of the Four Seasons Restaurant called Kleinhans when they heard that the lot on 59th Street was going to be vacated, aware that she was interested in presenting plays. She did buy the space and her first press conference was held on bedrock as tractors dug up the site. Given the narrow dimensions of the lot, the architect Leo Modrein had to be very innovative to create three theaters, plus dressing rooms, bathrooms, ticket office and the mezzanine bar. "We wanted audiences to overlap at the bar," says Tear. "A lot of interesting energy develops there among audience members of the three theaters. That mingling is important."
Tear got hooked on theater when he was two years old and his parents took him to the Gaiety Theatre in their hometown of Ayr, Scotland. But until he joined 59E59, he worked in fashion, marketing and advertising, never losing his passion for theater. Hoping to break into theater, he took an unpaid job with the Circle in the Square when it reopened in 1999. "I never could have gotten into theater at my age in the UK," he says. "America is still the land of opportunity. Halleluiah!"
From there it was only a few years of presenting on his own until the fortunate meeting with Kleinhans. "It's great not to have to play it safe."
For information on the theater's schedule and membership, go to http://www.59e59.org