Cocteau digs Bowery

Company hopes to capitalize on changes in downtown Gotham

NEW YORK — Come Aug. 31, the rock shrine CBGB loses its lease on its Bowery space — which now goes for approximately $19,000 a month. Fortunately, across the once-tawdry avenue, the Jean Cocteau Repertory is not a victim of the neighborhood’s gentrification.

“The Bowery is still fun, but I don’t know how edgy it is anymore,” says Ernest Johns, the Cocteau’s new artistic director. “The biggest turnaround has been in the last four years.”

Unlike CBGB, Cocteau has a friend in its landlord, Honey Waldman, who bought the historic building in the late 1950s and converted it from a bank into a theater, the Bowerie Lane. Her production of “Dames at Sea” opened there in 1968. The Cocteau, now in its 35th year, took up residence a few years later, and unlike many nonprofits, has never had to look for another space.

The Cocteau specializes in the classics, and under Johns’ tutelage, the company will be offering more world-premiere translations. This season alone it presents Mark Blitzstein’s translation of “Mother Courage” and Joseph Good rich’s translation of “Medea.”

Bigger changes, are due for next season, when Johns hopes to capitalize on changes in downtown Gotham. “On the weekends, it’s pretty crowded on the Bowery, and we will try to pick up on that street traffic.”

Starting in 2006, the Cocteau will introduce late-night perfs on Friday and Saturday.

“That programming will not be our bread-and-butter classics, but rather a combination of new works, comedies and music. We will sponsor some outside companies and develop new material within our own company, using younger writers and directors to try to lower our audience demographics.”

Theatergoers of a certain age will remember when the commercial Off Broadway theater always offered late-night Friday and Saturday perfs. That 10-11 p.m. time slot, however, was gradually replaced over the years with a Sunday matinee, to help appeal to older auds.

For one reason or another, those more mature theatergoers can no longer be relied on to fill venues, and along with other nonprofits, the Cocteau’s subscription base has fallen as a result.

“Especially since 9/11,” Johns says.

The Cocteau looks to court the Bowery’s younger, more moneyed denizens. “That 25-36 age range — they’re well along in their career paths, and we can get them into the theater.”

But why stop there? Seducing them with latenight comedy and music, says Johns, “We can then entice them into our mainstage work.”

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