Atlantic Theater Company Family Celebrates Rebirth of Its Chelsea Church Space
By Robert Simonson
Supporters and donors and artists who attended the Oct. 1 unveiling of the Atlantic Theater Company's newly renovated mainstage home in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan were treated to a private viewing of the troupe's new downstairs lobby, costume shop, green room and bathrooms. They also got to see a rare performance of William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman's ukelele act.
To the accompaniment of the miniature strummings of Macy, and a bottomless flow of practiced patter, the married duo — long associated with the Atlantic — saluted the company's "loose group of 30-odd theatre artists who are both loose and odd" by setting the titles of all the plays the Atlantic has presented over its two decades to a jaunty melody.
For an encore, they sang the names of the Atlantic actor veterans who were gathered in the audience, including Giancarlo Esposito, F. Murray Abraham and Larry Bryggman. Unlike other recent construction projects undertaken by other New York theatre companies, which replaced old digs with completely new architectural visions, the Atlantic sought, in its $8.3 renovation of its landmarked home, to preserve the space's basic look and feeling, while improving patron and backstage facilities.
"We knew that we needed more space, knew that we needed new bathrooms, more seats," said artistic director Neil Pepe, "but we wanted to do it in a way that didn't compromise the integrity of the space and the charm of the performance space. I talked to [director] Joe Mantello, along with many other people. I asked, 'What do you think we should do?' He said, 'Don't change a thing.' He was saying he loves the nature of this space. But we knew we had to make improvements."
"The hardest part was at the beginning," said longtime Atlantic company member, the actress Mary McCann. "We met all these incredible architects who did these amazing presentations. Ultimately, we went with the architects who said, 'We want to excavate, make it like an archeological dig; we want to preserve the intimacy of the space.' We had to find someone who really meant that, who wasn't going to create something that was more about them than it was about what we're trying to do."
Managing director Jeffory Lawson told how friends now come into the new interior and say, "What did you do? It looks the same." That sort of reaction is fine by him.
Because the Atlantic space — a church that was built in 1850 — is a city landmark, nothing could be done to the exterior. So, to get the additional square footage the company needed to move forward, construction workers dug 14 feet below the building. "All that was down there was a boiler room under the now-green room," said McCann. The work was slow and delicate, since the workers had to protect and secure the building's underpinnings. "For a year, it looked like nothing was happening," said McCann.
Today, the new 5,100-square-foot basement area contains an enlarged lobby with a suite of new restroom facilities, a new box office, improved handicap access, a prop-building workshop, a costume shop and backstage support offices.
Those new bathrooms are arguably the most appreciated — and joked about — aspect of the renovation. "We have indoor plumbing now!" joked Macy. "So Broadway can kiss our ass."
The Atlantic's former restroom situation was among the most notoriously awkward in the New York theatre. In order to use the facilities, theatergoers had to walk to the side of the stage to a small bathroom that sat cheek-by-jowl with backstage. The lines were often long.
"Those terrible bathrooms!" said McCann. Those facilities established their infamous reputation with the Atlantic's first production, a David Mamet adaptation of Three Sisters starring Pepe and McCann, and directed by Macy. "We used the shelves in the bathroom for prop shelves," said McCann. Among those props were pastries that had been shellacked. A sign warned patrons not to consume the fake goodies, but it was ignored. "Someone ate them and got very sick during intermission."
The bathrooms also acted as unintentional loudspeakers for theatergoers' opinions. "You could hear people talking during intermission about the show," recalled McCann. "It was right there, because the green room for the actors was attached to the bathroom. You had to run upstairs to get away from the talk."
Raising the money for the project during a recession was not easy. According to Pepe, aspirations shrunk from $11 million to $7.5 million after the economy tanked in late 2008. "Interestingly enough," he observed, "we were still able to do everything we wanted to do. We were just creative about it."
Pepe is still fantasizing about further improvements, particularly regarding the downstairs lobby. "I have dreams about putting tables down there, maybe some jazz music."
Especially remembered at the ceremony was Linda Gross, after whom the newly refurbished theatre is named. An avid theatre lover who sat on the board of the directors of the Atlantic, she passed away before the enterprise could be completed. Her husband, Daniel Gross, however, was on hand.
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