Sarah Hughes can remember walking down 42nd Street, usually after a show, and glancing at the edifice of Theatre Row as she passed by. “I would think, it’s all dark in there,” recalls Hughes. The building was very much open, but as a downtown producer and director, she did not see it as a natural home.
But downtown has moved uptown since then, and Hughes is now six months into her new role as Theatre Row’s director of artistic programming. After years at New York’s hippest companies, she is reshaping this venue which is ready for some reinvention.
Theatre Row has been a mainstay of 42nd street since its opening in 2002. A five-theater complex with a studio, it has offered affordable rental options for both commercial Off-Broadway renters and journeymen companies. The string of theaters populating the block has gradually supplanted the porn stores that once dominated 42nd between 9th and 10th Avenues. With the presence of Playwrights Horizons and Signature Theatre, it’s now a given that this block is alive with varied, challenging theater.
Yet, Theatre Row itself was lagging behind. Its mix of commercial rentals and non-profit work gave the venue a grab bag feel. With The New Group sitting next to Musicals Tonight sitting next to commercial runs, the venue’s identity was unclear. “It has felt like watching [a venue] fighting with itself,” says Helen Shaw, theater critic at New York Magazine. “Some things seemed so nakedly commercial – but then you’d also have work that wasn’t happening anywhere else in the city.”
Adding to the mix, Theatre Row was also host to long-running variety shows The Marvelous Wonderettes, NEWSical the Musical and Naked Boys Singing, which mainly targeted tourists. NEWSical had made Theatre Row its home for seven years, Naked Boys for eight. Though these productions shared just one theater, their association with the complex may have been outsized. So for Hughes, as she walked by, the “outside impression was maybe work that I was less interested in.”
In correcting all this, the building’s grim, non-descript exterior was tackled first. Wendy Rowden, who joined as president of Building for the Arts, Inc. – the nonprofit which manages Theatre Row – in 2015, began with a facelift. “We wanted to make our spaces brighter, and connect better with the street,” says Rowden. The lobby and exterior were remodeled to a sleek, eye-catching white design. The lobby’s dead space was utilized for comfortable seating and a new bar. The second floor lounge was renovated, now also functioning as a co-working space for the many artists in the building. Mostly though, these renovations were “about the audience experience,” stresses Rowden. “Making it the kind of place that people want to come to.”
That was phase one. Phase two was reinvigorating the space artistically – which is where Hughes came in. A longtime collaborator of well-known Off and Off-Off Broadway companies like Elevator Repair Service and Target Margin Theater, Hughes was brought on to tackle the question, as put by Rowden: “How can Theatre Row deepen its impact in the non-profit theater community?”
Hughes quickly found the answer in Theatre Row’s existing work – work that, as she’d walked by years earlier, had seemed hidden away. Theatre Row had been home to companies like Ma-Yi Theater, which produces new works by Asian American writers, dance pieces by The Chase Brock Experience and Theater Breaking Through Barriers, dedicated to artists with disabilities.
“We already had amazing, ongoing relationships with several companies,” Hughes notes. Theatre Row also had connections with Keen Company and Mint Theater Company, to name a few. So Hughes formalized these residencies and added New Light Theater Project, an ensemble focused group inspired by the Little Theater Movement, bringing it to ten companies total in the fold. The focus now is, “How can we serve those existing ten companies in the best way, and be a good partner to them,” she said.
Hughes is also opening Theatre Row’s doors to companies that never dreamt of a home on 42nd Street. She created The Kitchen Sink Residency, which provides five emerging companies with two years of support. That includes a work-in-development festival (in summer 2020) and a world premiere production (spring 2021). For both ventures Theatre Row will, for the first time in its history, act as co-presenter rather than just a host venue.
“If you don’t put money towards it, it’s not important to you,” says Stephanie Rolland, who joined along with Hughes as director of theatre operations, and terms herself the “godmother” of Kitchen Sink. Smaller companies, Rolland also notes, might not have seen Theatre Row as accessible to them. “It’s a perception shift.”
In the transition, Wonderettes, NEWSical and Naked Boys moved out of the complex. All were productions of Tom D’Angora, whose newest piece A Musical About Star Wars also departed. Rowden says the parting was mutual. “That was just a natural progression. A number of the shows had come to their end. The timing just worked out the way it did.” Two of the four shows quickly re-opened at new midtown venues. D’Angora declined to comment.
Theatre Row’s five “houses” were also renamed – or rather unnamed, since they will now go by Theaters 1-5. Three had previously borne the names of significant figures in the block’s history: director and critic Harold Clurman, playwright Samuel Beckett, and former director of Manhattan Plaza Rodney Kirk. Hughes notes that the history behind those names continues to be honored both on Theatre Row’s website and in a presentation on the lounge walls. The change was “about having a unified branding,” explains Rowden. “So that people understand Theatre Row as a multifunctional venue, where you can see lots of different kinds of things.”
Shaw notes that you can only fight architecture so much – but that Hughes’ artistic initiatives, more than branding, could make the difference. “What the transition is going to do, I hope, is make it a place where the human architecture is doing that work,” says Shaw. “Sarah is a warm, funny, interested, adventurous person. She is welcoming a lot of work into the venue that is warm, funny, and adventurous.”
Hughes acknowledges that the role is a big transition for her – but points to large changes in the city’s theater scene, and the shifts her hiring represents.
“You look at the kind of work that’s happening on Broadway now, and it’s coming out of Clubbed Thumb,” Hughes notes, referencing What the Constitution Means to Me’s recent transfer from the Off-Off Broadway company. “You look at the shows that are going to regional theaters around the country, and it’s Movement Theater. Amazing downtown companies that have been working, working, working for years, and are finally getting recognized on larger stages.”
For The Assembly, one of the companies selected for a Kitchen Sink residency, the move uptown is welcome. The Assembly devises multi-disciplinary works as an ensemble. Their Kitchen Sink project, IN CORPO, will be the company’s first musical. A musical invites higher costs, but also a wider audience. Theatre Row can help with both – bringing in “people passionate about musicals and people passionate about Kafka,” says co-artistic director of The Assembly Jess Chayes. She adds: “Building and creating towards a specific theater is a gift. We could not pull that off were we to rent a theater. We have the opportunity to make IN CORPO for Theater 1.”
That’s not to say she has no regrets. “We will definitely miss our favorite downtown watering holes,” Chayes admits. But, pointing to the loss of a Fourth Street bar long favored by theater artists, she adds: “Stillwater is closed, so maybe it’s time for a location change.”