NEW YORK — While much of Off Broadway is either shrinking or disappearing in the stranglehold of economic recession, Cherry Lane Theater is actually growing.The West Village company has struck a deal with Westbeth, an artists’ community that until recently housed Bank Street Theater in its space. Now Cherry Lane is expanding into the theater, renaming the 90-seat black box venue the Cherry Pit to become its third stage. Not only will the venue give Cherry Lane another base for its mentoring program, but it also provides an additional revenue stream as homeless Gotham theater troupes trawl Manhattan for affordable performance space to rent.
The Cherry Pit joins other offshoot structures like the Atlantic’s Stage 2, Roundabout Underground and Lincoln Center’s LCT3, all of which are under the umbrella of parent orgs looking to shepherd new work by relative unknowns.
Cherry Lane expends a lot of effort to that end on its Mentor Project, which pairs such well-known playwrights s Charles Mee or Michael Weller with relative unknowns like Deirdre O’Connor, and then stages a small production (which is not open to review).
Now, those productions have a chance to move up to a larger, higher-profile space — O’Connor’s “Jailbait” opens March 25 at the Cherry Pit — mostly because Westbeth board chairman (and Cherry Lane donor) Arnold Warwick made exec director James King an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Arnold called us and said, ‘Do you need a 90-seat theater?’ ” says a.d. Angelina Fiordellisi.
“They really wanted us to have it,” King adds.
The upshot of the conversation (and some back and forth between King and Westbeth over terms) was that Cherry Lane could lease the theater from Westbeth for four months at $5,000 a month, and Westbeth would contribute generously to the utilities.
That $5,000 a month, by the way, is a steal — Cherry Lane charges $3,500 a week for its 60-seat Studio Theater (where the Mentor Project work is initially staged) and $10,500 for the mainstage.
King ballparks weekly rates for the new space at “comparable to half of what we charge for the mainstage,” so the company could potentially be making back its rent every week for the first few months, depending on demand. Cherry Lane could use the revenue — its budget has shrunk to $700,000 from $1.1 million.
The terms of the agreement are likely to change, of course — the theater hopes to negotiate a five-year lease with an option for another five — but both Fiordellisi and King say Westbeth is committed to keeping the space affordable.
There’s some bad blood between Westbeth and the space’s previous tenants, who were evicted. Dan Wackerman, who managed the Bank Street Theater for 10 years, says its rapid eviction and subsequent arrival of the Cherry Pit still rankles.
“The eviction began in June, we started fighting it in July and by August the Cherry Lane was touring the space,” says Wackerman, now a.d. of Peccadillo Theater Company.
Bank Street’s lease was due to end this August, and it was “almost up to five grand a month” in rent according to Wackerman, so Cherry Lane will likely be a more cost-effective solution for Westbeth even at very low rates.
It’s a good time for the theater to seek out this revenue stream. Like everyone else, it’s had to cut staff and wants to build it back up again. Second, with theaters closing left and right, there are plenty of companies looking for premises.
“We’re hoping it will become a place for all the Off Broadway companies that have lost their houses,” Fiordellisi says. That’s an ever-lengthening list, including the Foundry Theater, Studio Dante, and everybody who used to call the Zipper Factory or Ohio Theater home. Fiordellisi has already secured agreements with the Foundry and Naked Angels to use the Cherry Pit for their productions in the coming year.
The expansion can’t help but distend Cherry Lane’s operating budget eventually, but King says he believes the revenue will more than make up for the expanded fiscal responsibilities, especially with the head start Westbeth is giving the company.