A Theater Turns Hardship Into Hope

DSC_0745Ian Duncan When 94 St. Marks Place was put up for sale, owners of the basement theater launched a campaign to buy the building. Below, Heidi Grumelot and Erez Ziv of Horsetrade, the theater’s owner.
Heidi Grumelot and Erez Ziv at Under St Marks

It was an e-mail message from the blogger EV Grieve that first alerted the Horse Trade performance group that a building that served as the home to one of its theaters was up for sale. The news was a shock to co-founder Erez Ziv and artistic director Heidi Grumelot — and apparently to the landlord, who, they say, was not expecting the brokers to move so quickly. The asking price was just shy of $6 million.

Grieve asked darkly whether the sale would mean the end for the 45-seat theater, but Mr. Ziv sprang into action and Horse Trade is now running a campaign to buy the building for itself and turn it into a haven for theater people — a sort of off-off Broadway bed and breakfast for companies from around the world. There, actors, performers and writers could collaborate, sharing ideas and hatching new projects.

The plan shows the ambition of Horse Trade, a company with influence across New York’s theater world, but which is also in a precarious position shared by many independent theaters in the neighborhood. In the last few years, a number of venues have closed down, shutting off opportunities for new performers and writers to test ideas. But the East Village shows some signs of health — a 2008 study found it was home to only 14 percent of New York’s independent theaters, but 27 percent of the city’s performances.

DSC_0720Ian Duncan The entrance to Under St Marks.

The news of the impending sale and possible loss of a long-lived performance space —records indicate that the basement 94 St. Marks has been home to a theater since 1966— has stirred the East Village theater scene into action. Penny Pollak, who hosts a weekly open mic night at Under St. Marks that is a chance for the theater community to come together, said the mood is optimistic.

“Everybody has given something, whether it’s money or time or telling our rich friends to give money,” she said. “We’ll do anything to save this theater.”

Despite that optimism, the task facing Horse Trade is a large one. The asking price for the building is $5.75 million — Horse Trade turns over a little more than $500,000 a year. The first stage was to put out a call for donations online setting a goal of $50,000. When the deadline arrived Tuesday night, just $14,690 has come in through that method.

Last week, Horse Trade ran its Mini-Fridge festival, a week-long run of shows, and a Fourth of July barbecue with proceeds also going towards the rescue fund. In an e-mail message, Ms. Grumelot said with other contributions — including some offered in cash at the theater’s bar — the total stood at “just under $20,000.”

“There are people we haven’t seen since the first years of Horse Trade who have contributed,” Mr. Ziv said.

That seed money might not seem much, but Mr. Ziv hopes it will pay for the small army of professionals — lawyers, accountants, architects, realtors — needed to devise a long-term plan for the building and attract serious money to the campaign. “In the next two months, we will be creating a fundraising packet, including business plans, artist renderings and architectural drawings of what we hope 94 St. Marks Place can become,” Ms. Grumelot said in her e-mail.

OutsideWideRachel Wise Outside 94 St. Marks Place.

Ultimately, Horse Trade will be looking for wealthy individuals to hand over large chunks of cash.

Three years ago, Mr. Ziv says, he thinks 94 St. Marks would have been snapped up quickly. In today’s weaker real estate market he is hopeful Horse Trade will have some time to plan and there are models for what Horse Trade hopes to do. In 2005 Here Arts Center in SoHo managed to buy up its building, but it took three years to raise the money and finalize the plans. For Under St. Mark’s the clock is ticking. Here had a long-term lease, Horse Trade operates on a rolling, six-month lease arrangement and James P. Nelson, a partner at Massey Knakal, the building’s broker, confirmed that a number of offers had already been made.

Mr. Nelson said a buyer would not certainly toss the theater out. “It’s tough to speculate, but most investors would talk to existing tenants,” he said.

The current landlord could not be reached for comment for this post.

For their part Mr. Ziv and Ms. Grumelot are not hopeful that a new owner would work with them. The building brings in its current owner in the region of $270,000 annually, according to figures compiled by Massey Knakal, and a new owner might seek to improve on that. Horse Trade would struggle to pay any extra rent.

Meanwhile, many in the local performance community fear that the closure of Under St. Marks would mean the loss of a launch pad for many artistic works. Kelly Dwyer, who regularly performs at Ms. Pollak’s open mic, summed up the feelings of many performers asked about the theater. “To take away such an important place would rob so many artists from finding their voice,” she said in an e-mail message. “In a creative world full of mediocrity and banality, USM is a haven for unique and unusual expression and gives the artist a place to have revelation over and over again.”