Monday, June 23, 2008

Provincetown Playhouse to Stay Up, All Else Will Come Down; NYU's Alicia Hurley Proposes Stirring Cauldron in Celebration

As many of you have no doubt read elsewhere, the end of the Provincetown Playhouse story is essentially that NYU pledges to leave the four walls of the theatre alone while demolishing everything else around it. And now the community board, composed largely of people exhausted from having to constantly battle NYU -- and who, some have said, have been bribed or strong-armed or otherwise persuaded to drop their opposition to NYU devourment of Greenwich Village-- has unfortunately endorsed the idea.

I could not be at the community board meeting at which this was discussed and voted upon due to the need for me to be at the American Theatre Critics Association conference in DC. However, I did receive a long update from Andrew Berman of the Greeenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which I am pasting in below for everyone's edification. (Update: Andrew has just emailed me and asked me not to post the contents of his email blast, so I have removed it.)

Knowing that Andrew reads this blog from time to time, I take something of a calculated risk in publishing what I am about to write, but I would also be remiss if I did not say it: I feel there were ways in which Andrew's approach to the matter might have been more effective. Andrew has made no secret of his desire to run for office soon, and obviously he must work with the many and varied members of the community on other projects, so his risk factor rises in proportion to the monumentality of his tactics. That said, it should be perfectly obvious to anyone with a brain and a pulse that the cause of preservation in the Village -- at least where NYU is concerned -- requires a frothing pitbull to get anything done. Really, what I've learned here is the community board doesn't have the cojones to fight beyond a certain point, and NYU's Alicia Hurley, otherwise known as the university's designated pitbull, knows it and operates under the assumption that she can wear people down and wear people out and simply outlast them and their opposition.

In the case of the Provincetown Playhouse, I was perfectly happy to be the pitbull in question. However, I don't live in the neighborhood and as I am far from an architectural historian, I could not advocate for much beyond the perpetuation of the theatre -- it was hard for me to make the case for preserving the surrounding buildings without enough of a background to do so. It seems to me, in addition, that Andrew could quite easily have been said pitbull for his position (to save the surrounding buildings as well as the theatre) if he wished to, but that he did not want to go beyond a certain point to do so -- the point at which his political ambitions would have been put into jeopardy.

It's Andrew's right, of course. But I believe the moment that personal and political ambition supercedes civic duty is the moment when one begins retreating from one's cause.

To be clear, I remain very fond and respectful of Andrew, and I'd run to his side in a New York minute if he needed me in the future. If I didn't feel sure he finds me too much of a pitbull -- I got that vibe -- I'd even skip writing this entirely and imagine how I might go about working with him or for him, perhaps, in the future. In fact, one of the things I learned about the Provincetown Playhouse episode is how much of a charge I get out of fighting for what I believe in politically -- and that we, as a civic society, lack enough people with cojones to really rabble-rouse. But I would probably never be considered for such an opportunity and so I wrote this.

And anyway, as a result of all this, the Playhouse will live -- but be underused and misused and fundamentally mismanaged, although I might add that one of the more amusing moments of the community board pre-meeting I attended was when one of the members of the faculty of the Educational Theatre department at NYU's Steinhardt School stood up in the middle of the aisle and started screaming at me about how their stewardship of the Provincetown Playhouse has been absolutely unassailable and impeccible. The gentleman doth protest too much. (It's pretty much common knowledge that the Playhouse, which is owned by the NYU Law School, is leased to the Ed. Theatre people and that the Ed. Theatre people, many of whom I studed with years and years ago at NYU, have been willing to make the venue available to the Tisch School of the Arts people, but at an outrageous premium -- that's why Tisch actors can't perform at this world-famous venue.)

And -- oh yeah -- Alicia Hurley will now be able to forge on with her madness, her lies and her cheating, her contempt and raging, blithering hatred for the community in which she works and lives.

(And just to be clear about that, I'm not done battling Hurley yet. She may think she's won the battle, but the forces of the good and just will win the war. We'll do it legally and memorably. So don't relax, Alicia. You'll be dealt with in due time. Due time.)

Sorry if this post was not as grammatically pure as some -- I'm writing quickly and will likely come back to this post and clean it up here and there.

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Anonymous said...

I can't believe that they couldn't save that one building. I would gladly have traded the other 3 buildings that are unnessarily connected to the Provincetown (even though they once homed really important Village institutions).

Historic Greenwich Village just got another chunk less historic. Will Sexton take my diploma back - I can't stand to keep it now?

Just the walls and floor are not enough - they need to save the ceiling/roof, too. Just that one building. That would have been a sad compromise, but now it's just sad.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to share the following post on the O'Neill Forum that I think can clarify much of the misinformation that has been going around about this issue. If you want to see the exchanges in their entirety, see


by jtk10012 on Tue Jun 10, 2008 2:31 am

I've just sent Gail Cohen an email to ask her to explain her comment in her May 18, 2008 posting that "NYU wrote me that the historian they used for their plan was Jeff Kennedy, a student at NYU who did his thesis on the Provincetown Playhouse." I need to make it clear that, regardless of any statement to the contrary, NYU has not contacted me about any aspect of the Provincetown Playhouse since I left there in 2000. I finished and passed my doctoral defense of my 1000-page dissertation, "The Artistic Legacy of the Provincetown Playhouse," in December 2007. Within those seven years, the only contact I had with anyone from NYU was my dissertation committee, which was chaired by Dr. Lowell Swortzell until his passing.

I am currently a lecturer at Arizona State University and I'm currently finishing a book on the history of the Provincetown Playhouse. I will be launching my new research website at the O’Neill Conference this Friday, June 13. I have been reading from Arizona about the events surrounding NYU's renovation of the buildings on Macdougal Street and about their most recent plans to build around the walls that currently exist. Though I initially attempted to contact some of the administrators at NYU when I heard about their plans, hoping to get some clarification before responding, I have had no response whatsoever from anyone I have written.

I was a teaching fellow in the Program in Educational Theatre in the College of Education when the Playhouse was renovated from 1997 until it reopened in May 1998. At that time, the university was very intent on showing they understood the legacy of the Playhouse and did many things to attempt to demonstrate that. I was asked to design the historical gallery inside the Playhouse that celebrates the history of the Playhouse and I wrote a 28-page monograph that the university published thousands of copies of at great expense to be given to visitors to the Playhouse. I led tours for the university, Greenwich Village historical groups and the Museum of the City of the New York. I created and produced with Lowell Swortzell the award-winning "New Plays for Young Audience" reading series that gave playwrights the opportunity to workshop new scripts, most of which have gone on national acclaim; this program continues today (in fact, as I write this, week two of this year's series is underway) and continues the legacy of producing new American plays for which the Playhouse was first created. Classes, workshops, productions, storytelling programs, and programs that invite children in the city to participate have been going on in the theatre, primarily supervised by the Program in Education Theatre, which is housed within the Music and Arts Professions Department in the, now-titled, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

To show their support of the legacy of O'Neill, NYU also opened to Stephen Kennedy Murphy and his Playwrights Theatre group the use of the Playhouse when regular fall and spring semesters were not in session. I know Mr. Murphy, though it's been eight years since we've had contact, and I watched their work in the Playhouse literally almost every day in the first two summers they were in residence. Mr. Murphy's work has been very important, particularly the bringing to the Playhouse so many directors and actors seminal to the O'Neill's later work and his group's dedication to see the O'Neill canon performed, always in modest but excellent productions. However, to suggest that NYU had some responsibility to pay Mr. Murphy for his work is to simply not understand that NYU gave a private producing organization access to the theatre at very little cost to them because they were committed to those concerned with the legacy of the Playhouse. Instead, in contrast to what has been implied, NYU was showing their support for those concerned with O’Neill’s legacy since his work was so intimately involved with the Playhouse.

IN ABSOLUTELY NO OFFICIAL CAPACITY WHATSOVER, let me tell you that I watched daily progress of the renovation that began in the summer of 1997 of the Playhouse and was completed in its reopening in May 1998. NYU invested a great deal of money to reopen the Playhouse after it had been closed because ir was not up to building code; specifically, they had to install an extremely expensive elevator so that anyone that could not get to the bathrooms downstairs via the stairwell could still access them. In the process, they refurbished walls, floors, reupholstered the original seating (or at least what was in place in 1993), put in new lighting and sound systems, dressing rooms, stairwells, box office, security system, and the historical gallery. I seem to remember that the work ended up costing them almost double what was originally budgeted. I have in my possession paint from the walls, many, many layers thick from the many years, that I retrieved during the renovation. The width and depth of the theatre is the same as it originally was, which I have verified in many filings of building plans housed in the NYC Historical Building archives. Even the sconces on the side walls are in the exact same position they were in the original Playhouse (one need only visit the Playhouse and look at historical photos to see the truth of this). Unfortunately, because of its extremely fragile nature, the plaster dome literally fell through the stage floor and demolished into pieces in the basement when I crew was beginning to work on the stage. One of the most difficult days for Dr. Swortzell and myself was being informed of this accident. The one thing I can assure you is that no one at NYU intended for the stage and/or dome to be demolished. In fact, my recollection is that one of the workers narrowly escaped severe injury when he fell through the original stage down to the basement (where the boiler system still exists) when the structure gave way.

I am not in any kind of position to defend NYU in any way, nor have I been asked to. I, like everyone else, was completely taken aback by the initial news of their plans that seemed to include demolition, even if it included creating a new theatre space where the original was. However, I can tell you that almost nothing archival or original exists in the current space, some because of refurbishments earlier in its history and also because of the terrible accident I describe above. The most significant change over the years, in fact, is the façade of the theatre, with no façade since the 1940s looking even remotely like the original. I can understand, though, that those who frequented the theatre from the 60s until the present, a time when other significant theatrical work took residence in the theatre, feel that even this current façade has significance to them. The fact that the university has now rethought its plans and will at minimum keep the theatre in the same space with the current façade remaining, shows some understanding of its importance.

I hope that sharing these facts with you helps clarify at least a few questions and perhaps also clears up a few fallacies that have been propagated over recent years.

Dr. Jeffery Kennedy

P.S. Also, just to clarify, and I certainly don't mean to be contentious with Gail, but if Fitzi donated her collection to the Library at NYU, I, as one of the leading scholars on the Playhouse, know nothing about it. Edna Kenton donated some papers that are in the Fales Collection at NYU's Bobst Library. Unless there are papers that even the library knows nothing about, all of Fitzi's papers are at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (she had given them initially to the Wisconsin Historical Society) and all the rest were given by her closest friend to the New York Public Library, now housed in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at Lincoln Center.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I suppose you'd apologize for gassing eight million Jews as well, you dumb son of a bitch.

Anonymous said...

The hypersensitivity of truth.......