Downtown will get to keep a cultural mainstay that was slated to lose, thanks to the personal intervention of Julie Menin, the City’s commissioner of the Mayor’s Office and Media and Entertainment, who is also a former chair of Community Board 1.
Soho Repertory Theatre (also knows as Soho Rep.) is a leading theater company with a somewhat misleading name: Since 1991, it has been located in Tribeca, on Walker Street. From this 73-seat storefront venue, it has staged groundbreaking productions — such as Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” Annie Baker’s “Uncle Vanya,” and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon” — and won a bookcase full of prizes, including Obie Awards, Drama Desk Awards, and Drama Critics’ Circle Awards.
But all of this mattered little when the organization realized, last fall, that it had for decades been in technical violation of obscure zoning restrictions on its rented space. (This revelation came about when Soho Rep. was exploring the possibility of buying the Walker Street building.) Because renovating the theater to comply with code appeared beyond the group’s financial reach, Soho Rep. resolved instead to move out of Tribeca — immediately. The group hurriedly rented space uptown for a production then in progress, and began looking for a new permanent home.
“When we closed our space last fall, the prospect of ever returning seemed impossible,” recalls the Soho Rep.’s artistic director, Sarah Benson. “Given the anticipated legal, administrative, and construction costs for a company of our small size, the task felt Sisyphean.” At that point, Ms. Menin became involved. “Julie called me expressing her sympathies and her desire for Lower Manhattan to not lose another cultural venue,” she adds.
“When I heard that Soho Rep. was closing its Walker Street theater,” Ms. Menin notes, “I refused to believe that there was nothing that could be done. I called the Department of Buildings and arranged for Commissioner Rick Chandler to tour the Walker Street site with me.” Together, Ms. Menin and Mr. Chandler brainstormed to formulate a detailed list of renovations that would bring Soho Rep. into compliance, but do so without bankrupting the organization.
“With Julie’s advocacy and guidance, and with the additional help of the Department of Buildings, our return to Walker Street became a real possibility,” says Ms. Benson. “Since then, we’ve fundraised and assembled a team to design and implement necessary renovations.”
Mr. Chandler observes that, “Soho Rep. is a vital part of New York City culture, and the neighborhood.” He adds that when Ms. Menin, “told me about the problems with Soho Rep’s building, we convened a team from our Manhattan office to explain the process of bringing their theater up to code.”
Since Ms. Menin’s intervention, Soho Rep. has launched a $500,000 fundraising campaign to cover the cost of renovations, of which more than $300,000 has already been contributed. Ms. Benson now anticipates resuming productions in the Walker Street space for Soho Rep.’s 2018 season. The company also plans to remain in the Tribeca facility at least through 2022.
“I strongly believe that artistic institutions like Soho Rep. are the lifeblood of New York City,” Ms. Menin observes, adding that, “government can and does play a role in enabling them to survive and flourish. I am so pleased to have played a role in a great theater company’s new lease on life.”
The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, which Ms. Menin heads, oversees the economic and creative sectors of film, television, theater, music, advertising, publishing, and digital content — as well as real estate as it relates to these industries. In total, these sectors account for more than 305,000 jobs, and an annual economic output of $104 billion. The agency also promotes New York City as a creative nexus, issuing permits for productions filming on public property, and facilitating production throughout the five boroughs.