353 E 83st, 6L
New York, NY 10028
Sidewalks Theater did a performance cycle of Moliere plays and received support and other assistance from the French government, including an invitation to perform at the Embassy. They were cultured and gracious. We did a cycle of Aristophanes plays and the Greek government was polite, but disinterested in supporting us. Either they were too poor, too stingy, or we weren’t Greek enough. Fortunately we never depended on the kindness of outsiders to fund our productions, both a great strength and a glaring weakness.
When I first started Sidewalks Theater with the intention of revitalizing the classics with dynamic ensemble performances, I did so with a ten year plan. I had directed in other companies, but I never had a theater. I used other peoples’ spaces, frequently frustrated by my lack of control of the production process. I had read and heard experienced opinions that a new company needed a ten year plan, which I agreed with completely. This at a time when the average life span of a new theater start-up was two to three months.
The plan called for our first hit show in the seventh year. Despite agonizing downs and ecstatic ups in our seventh year we had our first hit show, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Our theater was on Beaver Street, around the corner from Wall Street and at that time a non-residential neighborhood. Despite all the disadvantages, we sold out every show in our 125 seat theater, sold standing room only tickets on the weekends, and had to refuse between 150 and 200 requests for seats at almost every performance.
Lysistrata was a great show that fulfilled one of my director ambitions, for the audience to fall off their seats with laughter. One amusing incident. A racy PSA (Public Service Announcement) for the show was aired on Channel Nine during a Rangers hockey game and we were besieged with phone calls from avid fans urgent to know what Lysistrata was. The house manager told some of the more vulgar callers that Lysistrata used to skate for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The show cost a small fortune proportionate to our limited means, but it made the money back at the box office. The audience demand for seats was high enough to move the show to a 299 seat Off- Broadway theater. We were negotiating with a theater for an open run, when disaster struck.
We had a large competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education for our arts and education program for underserved and neglected communities. It paid the salaries of our staff and some of the actors who taught workshops in public housing developments, prisons and other culturally isolated areas. I received a phone call from a government official informing me the Department of Education was closed and our grant ended immediately. We began a desperate effort to raise temporary funds until we could transfer the show and earn enough to pay expenses. A few days later, the Department of Environmental Protection notified us they were taking over our building and we had thirty days to vacate the premises.
Without money and a theater, once again we were vagabonds, forced to work at other people’s theaters. This was a distasteful necessity to me, because of the lack of respect for the physical premises in most Off- Broadway theaters that always caused conflict with my requirement that a theater must be clean and safe. The only consolation was that a number of our actors went with us. A few had been with us for five or more years, others for the last two years. This enabled us to continue to work at a high level that was maintained by the skills and talents of the core group.