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Studio Arena Saga Continues

Anthony Conte, president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, has confirmed that the banks that hold mortgages on the Studio Arena Theatre building have agreed to give the structure to Shea’s Performing Arts Center for use as a presenting house—provided the bankruptcy court approves. This move would allow Studio Arena to continue to serve the community as a venue for live theater, but there is also reason to be cautious about such an arrangement.

Over the past few weeks, Studio Arena Theatre, which had filed for Chapter 11, or a reorganization bankruptcy, requested a switch to Chapter 7, or liquidation bankruptcy. Liquidation means that the theater would go out of business permanently, its assets sold off to reimburse creditors. The major asset of the theater is the building itself, against which five separate banking institutions reportedly hold hefty leans. The theater also raided its own endowment, and therefore owes money to the Studio Arena Foundation, as well as to numerous other businesses. (Former Studio Arena managing director Ken Neufeld, by the way, became the president and CEO of Victoria Theatre Association and the Arts Center Foundation in Dayton, Ohio on June 1, 2009.)

What other assets of significant value the Studio Arena Theatre holds in terms of equipment and other property is a subject of much conjecture. There is a pervasive rumor that tools were illegally pilfered from the scene shop after the theater shuttered.

If the plan to transfer ownership of the building to Shea’s goes forward, a model would be devised whereby Studio Arena Theatre, formerly a producing theater, would become a presenting house, possibly booking two touring shows, two locally produced professional shows, and two college shows each year, reports Conte. Those involved hope to return Studio Arena Theatre to its mission of offering high-quality, legitimate theater—a goal that was, arguably, abandoned 20 years ago when commercial concerns began to eclipse artistic concerns almost entirely at the theater.

Many questions remain. Among them:

■ Would the Studio Arena name be retained?

■ Would the Studio Arena function as a union house? Union contracts negotiated by LORT (the League of Resident Theaters) are widely viewed as having hobbled former Studio Arena leadership in its efforts to balance the books and alter its producing model.

■ What would become of the venerable Studio Arena Theatre School? Co-founded by Jane Keeler and Lars Potter in the 1920s, its alumni include Nancy Marchand, Michael Bennett, and Amanda Blake. Young James Whitmore and Charles Durning worked there, and in her youth character actress Reta Shaw served on its faculty.

■ With Studio Arena as it formerly existed liquidated, does the generations-old partnership with Buffalo State College (where Studio co-founder Jane Keeler and Warren Enters, Studio Arena’s most frequent director, served on the faculty) disappear as well?

■ Given the right circumstances, numerous parties are likely to be interested to make use of the facility or to become involved in Studio Arena Theatre’s suspended educational programs. Much jockeying for position can be expected. Who, specifically, would evaluate proposals and what criteria would they use?

At the same time, while the leadership at Shea’s Buffalo can be lauded for expanding their subscription audience and for sustaining a fairly high standard of Broadway musical touring shows, they have no experience whatsoever with legitimate theater, and no friends within the highest echelon of regional theaters. In informal conversations, those involved cheerfully toss out the possibility of partnerships with Geva Theatre in Rochester—not exactly a thrilling prospect, as that institution is not on anyone’s list of America’s most exciting theaters. If Shea’s is to provide leadership, we can only hope that they will seek input from people with more of a national perspective, rather than pull ideas from the tops of their heads or fall prey to every opportunist waiting to pounce.

If the most the community can hope for is financially responsible mediocrity, the whole scheme hardly seems worth the effort. There would be little value in expanding the sort of Grade B programming that Shea’s puts into its Smith Theatre—innocuous and well-intentioned enough, but hardly consequential—and with Buffalo’s homegrown theaters expanding by leaps and bounds, nobody seems likely to welcome a return to a Studio Arena Theatre that functions as a bully, cohabitating with other local theaters in a relationship of intimidation, existing primarily to block other theaters from obtaining rights to new scripts. Any number of individuals are likely to present themselves as “experts.” Such people came out of the woodwork as Studio Arena was sliding into the abyss.

One of the few people in Western New York who truly impresses me as having the necessary experience, expertise, and national connections to help guide the next chapter of Studio Arena Theatre is Ethan McSweeny, co-artistic director (with his wife, Vivienne Benesch) of the Chautauqua Theater Company. McSweeny was dubbed a “wunderkind” and a director with “the Midas touch” by American Theatre magazine. A protégé of theater icon Michael Kahn, McSweeny has worked on Broadway and at a litany of the nation’s most prestigious resident regional theaters. He received the first-ever undergraduate degree in theater and dramatic arts from Columbia University and has served as associate artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey (2000-2004), resident director at New Dramatists in New York (2001-2002), and (with Michael Kahn) associate director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. (1993-1997). He currently sits on the executive board of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. Now in his fifth summer at Chautauqua, McSweeny has directed Death of a Salesman (2008) The Just (2007), The Cherry Orchard (2006), All My Sons (2005), Cobb (2003), and the New Play Workshops of Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints You Should Know, Quincy Long’s Aux Cops, and Rinne Groff’s What Then for the company. He also directed the New York premieres of 100 Saints You Should Know and Jason Grote’s 1001, which were both chosen to be among the top 10 productions of 2007 by Time Out and Entertainment Weekly magazines. He received a Tony nomination and the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for his direction of the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man starring Elizabeth Ashley, Charles Durning, Christine Ebersole, Spalding Gray, Michael Learned, Chris Noth, and Jonathan Hadary. He also earned national attention for his productions of Aeschylus’ The Persians, Euripides’ Ion, Willy Holtzman’s Sabina, and John Logan’s Never the Sinner (Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards). His national credits also include Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Guthrie in Minneapolis; Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Centerstage in Maryland; George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the world premieres of In This Corner at the Old Globe in San Diego, 1001 at the Denver Center Theatre (Ovation Award), and Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water at both the Guthrie and the Globe (San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award); the new musical Chasing Nicolette at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia (Barrymore Award nomination); the world premiere of Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade at South Coast Rep in California (OCIE Award); and productions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at the Guthrie (Star-Tribune Award).

Most importantly, at Chautauqua, Mr. McSweeny has proven that he has that rare combination of artistry and business savvy that’s needed to provide sound leadership and theatrical excitement at a regional institution. I’d say somebody should ask Mr. McSweeny if he has any ideas for Studio Arena Theatre—and quickly.

Hard times at Jewish Rep

Meanwhile, the story coming out of the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York is increasingly worrisome, and provides evidence that the recession has not yet hit rock bottom. Word emerged a few weeks ago that one of the announced shows from the theater’s upcoming seventh season, Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, had been cut, reducing the season to two plays. Then came the news that the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo had laid off JRT Managing Director Tom Dooney, as well as a beloved Center secretary.

JRT of WNY was co-founded in 2003 by David Bunis and Saul Elkin, offering a two-play season featuring Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green and Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. The theater hit a rough patch in the 2005-2006 season when they left subscribers hanging with the postponement of Jon Marans’ Old Wicked Songs. Then in 2006-2007, JRT returned with a vengeance, expanding to a three-play season and winning the Artie Award for outstanding production of the Buffalo theater season with their production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig. Subsequent highlights included Diane Samuel’s Kindertransport and William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony. The latter toured to Rochester starring Christina Rausa.

The upcoming season will feature Martin Sherman’s Rose and James Sherman’s From Door to Door (to Door to Door).

Jewish Rep has always been nomadic, renting theater spaces as they go. The current plan is to reassign managerial duties formerly undertaken by workhorse Tom Dooney in a part-time capacity to a JCC staff person.

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