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Queens Theater Hits The Big Time

Queens is more than just another town to get through on the way to the City, and, increasingly, its theater scene is worth stopping for.

It may be fitting that Queen Catherine of Braganza, the 17th century English monarch and supposed namesake for the Borough of Queens, was also a theater lover. Her husband, Edward II, oversaw the English Restoration, a raucous theater-going era when rambunctious comedies like “The Country Wife” and “The Way of the World” thrived after plays had been banned by the Puritans.

Similarly, the borough that takes its name from Queen Catherine is undergoing a restoration of its own. From Long Island City to Corona, professional theater in Queens, NY is flourishing. With six recently formed companies producing nearly 20 major productions this season alone, Queens is looking more and more like a thriving regional theater scene, right in Broadway’s own backyard. Yet unlike the far bigger theater scene across the East River, which serves as the center of the theater world for the entire nation, many of these Queens companies create theatrical works that directly engage their local community.

“When we started Queens Theatre in the Park, (in 1997) there were virtually no professional theaters in Queens. Now fortunately, there’s more,” says Rob Urbanti, director of New Play Development at Queens Theatre in the Park, or “QTIP,” as it is lovingly referred to by thespians on the scene.

The Scene Comes Alive

Though the trend is new, theater to the borough is not. Countless Queens-based community theater groups have been in existence for years. Some, like the Free Synagogue of Flushing Theater Group and the Bayswater Players, both having operated for more than thirty years, have outlasted the lifespan of some countries, let alone demographic changes in their neighborhoods and shifting interests created by generational turnover.

As late as 1996, however, the only professional groups in Queens were Black Spectrum and the Thalia Spanish Theatre, two companies still going strong and producing work specifically catered to the black and Hispanic communities, respectively. Even then, theater artists were looking to do something new in Queens. According to Angel Gil Orrios, artistic director of Thalia Spanish Theatre, “We were founded in 1977 by Cubans and Puerto Ricans out of the Hispanic Theater movement in Manhattan, who wanted to bring theater in Spanish to the hundreds of thousands of Latinos living in Queens.”

The latest surge in new theater in Queens has been growing since the late 90’s. The oldest and by far the largest of these new theaters is Queens Theatre in the Park which is housed in a lavish new 23 million dollar performing arts center. The spiraled lobby, walled completely by windows and bathed in a soft myriad of orange, purple, and blue light looks like an inside-out Guggenheim Museum. The Flushing Meadows facility operates a 4 million dollar-a-year budget, showcasing dance and music, as well as new and old plays.

Other venues include Long Island City’s The Chocolate Factory, which opened in 2001. It has become a theatrical hothouse of new plays and performance art, attracting a hip, young crowd and rave reviews. Astoria Performing Arts Center, Inc. (APAC), which also opened in 2001, supplies a robust community arts program in conjunction with main stage shows. The Queens Players at The Secret Theatre, whose work mainly focuses on new interpretations of old classics, opened its LIC doors in 2005. Jackson Repertory Theatre (also known as Jackson Rep), the most recent addition to the scene, is located in Jackson Heights and looks to create new work that engages the diverse community in the neighborhood.

Must the Show Go On?

Despite the growth, theater in Queens still faces challenges. One recent Queens start-up, Genesis Repertory, which opened in Astoria in 2007, has already closed its doors and moved to Brooklyn, and now works in a greatly reduced capacity. The company’s web page cites funding offers from both the Brooklyn borough government and promises of much-needed press coverage from local outlets as reasons for the move.

Orrios at Thalia Spanish calls funding a major hurdle, “After 9/11 we had three years in debt. We used to run 6 shows a year and we had to cut it down to 5. We’re back in black now, but we still don’t own our own space. We rent. Our new lease is four years from now. (Then) Borough President Claire Shulman promised that we’d get a permanent home 10 years ago. That’s yet to happen.”

The same financial issues are also reflected at The Queens Players. “We haven’t gotten any funding at all,” said artistic director Richard Mazda. “We’re making it work. But it’s hard.” So hard, in fact, that a recent Daily News article erroneously projected the end of The Queens Players and their home, the Secret Theatre (“It could be curtains for LIC venue Secret Theater,” Tuesday, March 17th 2009). That’s not going to happen, Mazda assures, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not tough.

Community and Cooperation

Despite the problems, all eyes are on the future, which seems to be somewhat in the vision of civic-minded groups like Thalia Spanish Theatre. Like the Thalia, many of these new theater companies look to engage the problems, joys, and concerns of their local communities. “Jackson Rep is a company that tries to connect to the cultural and geographical climate of the neighborhood,” says Ari Laura Kreith, artistic director of Jackson Rep, whose two new shows opened last Saturday and Sunday, “Stepmother in A Sari,” and “No Solo Mio,” hope to draw in both the local Indian and Hispanic populations.

But Jackson Rep isn’t the only group whose work opens a dialogue with their neighborhood. Queens Theatre in the Park’s spring New Play Development series “The Immigrant Voices Project,” dramatizes the concerns of various immigrant groups in the borough, while The Chocolate Factory’s recent “Redevelop (Death Valley)” comments on commercial development in LIC.

“You have to come in with an attitude of loving where you are, appreciating where you are,” says Astoria Performing Arts Center executive director Taryn Drongowski. Aside from their main stage productions, APAC works with the Astoria community through a number of theater workshops and classes specifically for Queens residents, “We have ‘Summer Stars,’ where kids get musical theater training and have a final, original showcase open to the public. The ‘Astoria Playmaking Program’ teaches kids how to write plays through improv techniques, and ‘Senior Stars’ is our performance group for Queens residents over 60.”

Community engagement may be one of the reasons these theaters are thriving. “You have to be invested in the neighborhood,” observes Drongowski. “When you have a place where, you are as interested in your audience as you hope they are in your shows, then you have a more dynamic experience.”

“It’s important to connect specifically to neighborhoods,” agrees Orrios at Thalia Spanish Theatre, but he also attributes the sustainability of theater in Queens to cooperation between theater companies, “We don’t like trying to compete for funding with other theaters, that’s why we like to build coalitions.” Drongowski agrees, “There’s this great spirit of non-competition here. It’s an understanding that a great theater scene in Queens is one that we will all benefit from. We’re trying to make going to theater a habit.”

Other explanations abound. Richard Mazda, at The Queens Players, attributes the theater boom to the rising cost of space in Manhattan and the relatively low cost of space in Queens. “The facilities in New York leave a lot to be desired. Here we can get much better space for our money. Our space surpasses 80% of the facilities of other Off-Off-Broadway theaters in Manhattan.” Money certainly plays a major factor; APAC, for instance, received seed money through Queens Council on the Arts which was instrumental in their formation.

Another possibility of the growth here is the increased audience in terms of young theater artists who have moved to Queens because they can find cheaper rent there. “We had over 400 people audition for ‘Ragtime,’ and over a third were living in Astoria,” notes Drongowski.

Rob Urbanti, at QTIP, on the other hand, has a simpler answer, and one that portends great hope for the future, “The theater scene has grown here because people in Queens support theater in Queens.”

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