For years, The Theatre of the Riverside Church has been a marginal presence in the Manhattan Theatrical landscape, despite its proximity to the Upper West Side and its mix of black and white audiences. However, if James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister of the church, has his way, a new era dawns for the playhouse. "We like to call [it] our Millennium Momentum -- our effort to continue to improve The Riverside Church as we approach the next century," Forbes said in a printed statement.
To that end, playwright Alvin Eng (The Goong Hay Kid, The Last Hand Laundry In Chinatown (musical penned with composer John Dunbar), More Stories From The Pagan Pagoda, Over the Counter Culture) has been appointed General Manager of the 270-seat theatre, which will start mounting professional productions and be available for use as a commercial rental house. Also, "state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities" are planned, so Riverside can link up with such national theatre sites as the Kennedy Center and do "simulcasting." There will also be master classes given by theatre professionals. In fact, the video capabilities will allow a class conducted in another state to be broadcast live at Riverside.
According to Riverside spokesperson Amanita Duga-Carroll (of Rubenstein Associates), Eng had expected to announce a fall season in June, but that has now been pushed back until late July. The theatre's reconfiguration will likely take three years to implement. Previously, Theatre of the Riverside Church, located at 120th St. and Riverside Drive, concentrated mostly on choirs and musical entertainments.
Reached Apr. 13, spokesperson Duga-Carroll elaborated: "For example, a master cellist could be at the Kennedy Center, while in New York an audience of young cellists not only watch, but at a certain point, interact. They can play something while the master listens and watches from DC, then he can give his comments."
Said playwright Eng in a statement, "My goal is to build a strong bond with the NYC theatre community, the congregation of The Riverside Church and the surrounding communities of Morningside Heights, Harlem and the Upper West Side... This will be a progressive, inclusionary venue." Eng told Playbill On-Line (Apr. 15) his main order of business is to "build from the inside out and get the community involved. We're trying to reconnect with, and update, the theatre's rich history. There was no theatre program here for ten years, so it's about letting people know we're here."
Asked why he thought he was pegged for the assignment, Eng said, "I guess they liked that I can communicate with the various congregations and communities over here... Theatre developed out of religious rituals and pageantry and meaning. Also, just as Riverside Church has been a real bastion of progressive politics -- it's interdenominational and international -- I want that progressive inclusiveness, too. It's one of the few Christian organizations that encourages gay and lesbian members, and we have many women ministers."
The Church's liberal views will extend to the theatre, which Eng says will have a no-censorship policy. "But we will let people know when there will be nudity and profanity, especially for the congregation. They just want to explore existential issues.. So for example, if it's a `pro-choice' play, we'll let people know what they're in for when they're coming in."
-- By David Lefkowitz