Daring, defiant, code-compliant: Soho Rep returns to Walker St.

Up to code and up for anything: Soho Rep, home again at 46 Walker St. | Photo by Sam Horvath

BY TRAV S.D. | Well, that was a close one! Sixteen months ago New York theatergoers got the terrible news that one of Downtown’s oldest and most beloved arts institutions, Soho Rep, was having to vacate its Walker St. space because of decades-old code violations of which the staff had long been unaware. Now, just as suddenly, a little over a year later, the company is back in its old home with a hit play (Aleshea Harris’ “Is God Is”) on the boards. What happened?

“During the process of renegotiating our lease for a relatively short extension,” said Soho Rep’s Executive Director Cynthia Flowers, “we became aware that the original folks who secured the space over 25 years ago neglected to file to be functioning as we were, as a theater. When we looked at what we needed to do in terms of implementing the necessary changes, we saw that there was no way we could afford it financially, and we decided we couldn’t be operating in the space, even though no one was filing a complaint.”

Announcements quickly went out, and news of the venue’s closure was widely reported in the New York Times and elsewhere. And for the next several months, Soho Rep operated itinerantly, presenting their work at such alternate locations as the Connelly Theater, the Public Theater, and the Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres. To outward appearances, the caliber of their work did not suffer. The most recent production presented under these conditions was Richard Maxwell’s “Samara,” with original music by Steve Earle.

But even as this was happening, the pieces were being put in place that would allow Soho Rep to turn around and come back to their long-time home.

“Soon after the [Sept. 28, 2016] Times piece came out, we got a call from Julie Menin, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment,” said Soho Rep’s Artistic Director Sarah Benson. “She’d been a friend to Soho Rep for a long time, and she reached out and said, ‘What can I do? This is crazy, you guys are important!’ Julie was the catalyst for us to even think it was thinkable to return to our space. She put us in touch with people at the Department of Buildings, who responded and worked with us, and made it a priority to help us get back in.”

“Thanks to Julie we first got some hope in October, but we didn’t actually know it would be feasible until February,” added Flowers.

L to R: Caleb Eberhardt, Nehassaiu deGannes, and Anthony Cason in “Is God Is” (through March 31). | Photo by Julieta Cervantes

According to Flowers, starting in October the company’s leadership put together a “general punch list” of all the things that needed to be accomplished in order to reoccupy the space, in terms of renovation and construction. From there, the staff reached out to the board and other stakeholders, and launched a fundraising campaign in April. Renovation work began by the summer.

“It was a long process,” said Flowers. “Five city agencies had to sign off on each step. And we were still producing theatre at the same time.”

Benson points out that the renovations have “also been an opportunity to improve space for audiences.” Not only has the theater been made code-compliant and safer, but the lobby has been freshened up aesthetically, with gallery walls that currently showcase work from the company’s 43-year history. Founded in 1975, Soho Rep presented work in numerous locations before moving into its permanent space on Walker Street in 1991. Kathleen Turner, Ed O’Neill, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Steve Buscemi, Jonathan Frakes, Will Patton, and Tim Blake Nelson all acted there early in their careers, and the company has premiered work by María Irene Fornés, Sarah Kane, Young Jean Lee, Richard Maxwell, Annie Baker, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Thomas Bradshaw, Cynthia Hopkins, and Anne Washburn.

Soho Rep’s lobby showcases work from the company’s 43-year history. | Photo by Sam Horvath

The current production “Is God Is,” written by Aleshea Harris and directed by Taibi Magar, continues the company’s cutting-edge tradition. The play is a sort of stew of elements from Greek Tragedy and similar myths, Afro-Punk, and bloody revenge scenarios from Italian cinema and Quentin Tarantino. On top of its explosive and downright dazzling script, and its winning cast, the production’s playful scenography by Adam Rigg, with set pieces that slide and move and flip and otherwise generally keep us on our toes, is also within Soho Rep’s tradition of making the absolute most out of its intimate, not to say tiny, black box facility. The artistic product is clearly none the worse for wear on account of their ordeal, even as the space itself has improved.

“We’re so happy to be back, said Benson, “and it’s been a very inspiring process, seeing how the Soho Rep community came together so that we could keep having this space as our home. It’s been an amazing thing to go through — if a little bit crazy.”

“Is God Is” plays through March 25: Tues.-Sun. at 7:30pm, Sat. at 3pm. Then, through March 31: Tues.-Sat. at 7:30pm, Sat. at 3pm. At Soho Rep (46 Walker St., btw. Broadway & Church St.). Visit sohorep.org or call 212-352-3101 for tickets ($35-$65 through March 11; $45-$85, March 13-25; $50-$90, March 28-31; 99 cents Sun., March 4 & 11, 7:30pm).

L to R: Alfie Fuller and Teagle F. Bougere in “Is God Is.” | Photo by Julieta Cervantes

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