Atlantic Buys Slice Of Apple Corps Trouble

The Atlantic Theater Co. has front-row seats to a bitter drama between the Apple Corps Theater and the Chelsea church where Apple built its home in 1984.

Atlantic, founded in Vermont by David Mamet and W.H. Macy, has had to postpone the opening of Mamet’s adaptation of “The Three Sisters” from Feb. 15 to April 12 while a faulty lighting and scenic grid is replaced. The repair will cost Atlantic between $15,000 and $20,000.

Structural repairs were among the points of contention between the church and its previous tenant, Apple.

Dispute centers on Apple Corps’ charge that it was unfairly kicked out of its theater, a renovated parish house at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, on West 20th Street. St. Peter’s retorts that Apple had all but stopped functioning as a theater company and was mostly renting out the space to other groups.

“Three Sisters” is inaugural production of Atlantic as a resident Off-Broadway group. Atlantic became the church’s tenant in December, when Apple vacated following more than a year of lease disputes.

Two months after Apple left the theater it virtually built in 1984, neither side in the dispute has given much ground. Apple reps claim the church made unreasonable lease demands and ultimately drove the theater company out, only to end up accepting similar or even less beneficial terms from Atlantic. A church spokesman says lease negotiations simply broke down after more than a year and that the Atlantic deal was made only after the church and Apple “agreed to stop discussions.”

Apple’s original lease expired in March 1989. At that time, says John Raymond, Apple’s artistic director, the church presented the company with a new four-year lease that included rent increases of 8% for each of the four years and no option to renew. He says the lease also assigned responsibility for building repairs to the theater company. Company balked at the repairs clause.

“We had already put a quarter of a million dollars into the facility,” per Raymond. “It was a shell when we moved in, a parish house, and we built a theater.”

“That figure always seems to go up,” counters William Feiser, a volunteer warden of the church who oversaw the negotiations. “We never saw any receipts with regard to how much money they spent.”

According to Raymond, the church has agreed to pay Apple $46,000 for fixtures the theater company installed during its residency. Of that amount, Apple has received $12,000, the remainder to be paid once Atlantic receives its New York City public assembly permit.

Raymond says Apple is investigating legal action in case the remaining $34,000 is not paid by the April opening of “Three Sisters,” assuming the production would require an assembly permit.

In a copy of the Atlantic lease obtained by Raymond, the church is responsible for repairing the building’s exterior, structure, plumbing and sprinkler systems. Rent begins at $6,000 per month during 1991 and rises incrementally to $7,260 by the end of 1995. Atlantic also was given the option to extend the lease four years, an option the Apple reps say was denied them.

Early last summer, the church decided to forego a single-tenant lease altogether, opting to assume the role of theater manager and offer the space on a rotating basis to three resident theater companies.

“They said we could come back as tenants and pay market prices for the theater we built,” says Raymond. Feiser counters that Apple “had been dark a lot and had stopped producing their own work and become managers.”

In its final season, Apple produced two new plays, running only from May to July, 1990. The theater company had increasingly rented out its space to a number of other theater groups, primarily minority and alternative groups such as the Pan-Asian Repertory Theater, the Women’s Project and Three-Dollar Bill, a gay theater group.

Although Amy Miller, Atlantic’s managing director, would not discuss lease provisions, she says the church is responsible for structural repairs – a stumbling point in the Apple negotiations – while refurbishment specifically related to the theater (such as the new grid) fall under the province of Atlantic.

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