Report: Ohio Theatre and the Ice Factory

The downtown fixture finds new roots on Greenwich Street.

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Robert Lyons

Robert Lyons Photograph: Andrea Reese

Robert Lyons is having a much better summer than he did last year. In August 2010, skyrocketing Soho rents forced him to shutter the Ohio Theatre, a 30-year-old downtown stalwart he'd run since 1987. The best news Lyons could muster then was that he'd been offered a three-year interim residency at 3LD, the state-of-the-art theater lab near the Financial District, while he searched for a new home.

"Half of what you do is keep the narrative going," says Lyons, an affable giant with white hair and a tiny gold earring, as he sits in the lobby of 3LD, where the Ohio's 18th annual Ice Factory new-play festival is running now. "When people ask what you're doing next, and your answer is, 'We don't know,' your stock goes down. But if you can say, 'We'll be at 3LD for three years,' it's a huge boon."

But Lyons isn't just smiling because he's pumped about this year's Ice Factory ("Eastern Europeans and rock music" are two recurring themes, he notes) or jazzed by 3LD's high-tech multimedia tool kit. If this indie-theater impresario looks especially relaxed, it's because his theater's narrative just took another happy turn. The Ohio, it turns out, will have a new home as early as fall: Lyons has signed a ten-year lease with the owners of the West Village's Archive Building to take over its basement, the former Wings Theatre. The new space—to be christened Ohio West when it opens in September—will have 72 seats and a 28-by-30-foot playing space.

True, it's not the big, barnlike expanse for which the old Ohio was justly beloved, but Lyons thinks it has potential—and even better, the rent is significantly lower than it was in Soho (he wouldn't name a figure, though he said that the Ohio's former annual budget ranged from $250,000 to $300,000, a large percentage of which went to the landlord).

"Our rent had quadrupled in Soho, so that all the money that had previously gone into developing work went to just keeping our doors open," Lyons recalls. "I made my peace with that and got used to living with that sense of doom. But to sit here with a ten-year lease...it does open up your mind."

Lyons hopes to return primarily to producing and presenting work, as opposed to simply doing "curated" rentals, and he plans to continue relationships with itinerant companies such as Target Margin Theater, New Georges, International WOW, Clubbed Thumb and Rude Mechanicals. "Those companies all got to know each other; there was a sense of community around the Ohio," Lyons observes. "That elusive thing people talk about actually existed there, and I want to bring that to the new location."

He's also keen to keep adding fresh ingredients to that stew, and the Ice Factory makes for a handy networking center. Though the Brooklyn company Aztec Economy has been on the scene for a while, its Pontiac Firebird Variations (Wednesday 6--July 9), an '80s-set hit-man drama inspired by Richard III, is an Ice Factory debut. So are the Subjective Theater Company's An Impending Sense of Doom (July 13--16), which examines the perennial seductions of apocalyptic paranoia, and the immersive Sometimes in Prague (July 27--30), a blast of rocking Czech pub theater by Joshua William Gelb and Stephanie Johnstone.

More Czech food and drink is being delivered by an Ohio regular, Untitled Theater Company #61, with The Pig, or Vclav Havel's Hunt for a Pig (ending Saturday 2). Untitled staged much of its 2006 Havel festival at the Ohio, and Lyons counts buying the Czech playwright/president a beer as a favorite memory from the old space.

As if staging a festival and renovating a theater weren't enough for one summer, Lyons is producing a concurrent late-night reading series, Ice Cubes, also at 3LD. Indeed, it feels like Lyons is just getting started—so much so that he can't even say for sure what future shape this new-works fest will take. "Ice Factory is a successful model," Lyons concedes. "But everything's on the table, in a good way. We're open to reimagining the organization. It's unreal; I feel very lucky to have a chance to make this profound step after so long."

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