Diamonds in the Rough

I love finding old theatres hidden amongst the concrete buildings – and often in them, usually down dusty hallways and up gorgeous flights of stairs (or vice versa) – that comprise the jungle of New York City.

My latest discovery: The John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors on 54th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, AKA the heart of the theatre district, AKA my hood, making it all the more baffling that I wasn’t aware of its very existence until now. It’s a great space with a plethora of breathing room (an off-Broadway rarity!), courtesy of a tall, beautiful roof reminiscent of the former library ceilings adorning some of the Public Theatre’s auditoriums (not bad company!). This spaciousness allows for a two-tiered elevating playing field and multiple rows of raked, comfortable seats (another rarity!). All of which begs the question: Since I’m an uber-regular theatregoer, why have I never visited this place before?!

There are some obvious downsides, such as what looks like a lack of a backstage area, a problem for dressing-room-reliant egotistical actors and any show that calls for multiple sets requiring offstage storage. Luckily, both can easily be avoided by thoughtfully choosing the right cast and material. And sure, some of it’s real rundown, but that’s in no way a rarity off-Broadway. Excluding the cream of the crop, most theatres are in a similar condition, needing a touchup here and a makeover there. I’m obviously unaware of any substantial structural problems that may hinder top-tier producing, but I see no reason why an acclaimed nonprofit couldn’t stage worthwhile work here (I’ve given up on commercial off-Broadway until someone gives me a reason to believe again, ESPECIALLY for straight plays, the best of which can’t even turn a marginal profit and thus survive on the Great White Way).

Couldn’t is one thing; shouldn’t is an entirely different matter. I guess there’s an argument to be made that amateur theatrical enterprises need somewhere to call home as well. And if long-time proprietor James Jennings would rather reserve his wares for them, that’s entirely his prerogative. Personally, I’d rather these rude mechanicals start in the plethora of down-and-dirty black box theatres – some of which are located in and on converted grounds never intended to be theaters – far removed from the main stem. They can work their way up to these sorts of bigger and better houses.

As such, I sincerely hope that a prestigious theatre company reclaims the John Cullum so that many others like myself can be introduced to its widely-unknown charms…right after someone figures out how to save the Pearl Theatre Company’s abandoned premises on 42nd Street from becoming yet another nondescript high-rise.

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