After the storm, New York’s theaters face blackouts and empty houses

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Times Square, lit up but empty, on Monday night. (Flickr via Moishe Friedman)
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W.M. Akers

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The temporary home of St. Ann's Warehouse is on Jay Street, nestled in the heart of Dumbo, just half a block from the East River.

On Monday night, tropical storm Sandy soaked Dumbo, flooding Jane's Carousel and dealing untold damage to the neighborhood's bookstores, galleries and shops. As images of the disaster rolled in, St. Ann's executive director Andrew D. Hamingson scanned the pictures for a glimpse of his theater, and expected the worst.

"I'm a bit of a weather hobbyist," he said by phone yesterday, "so I was keeping a very close eye on the storm. It was a fitful night to say the least."

Tuesday morning, he drove to Dumbo to see the chaos for himself. Across the street from the theater, a parking garage was filled with 10 feet of water. Next door, a coffee shop's storeroom had flooded, creating a mire of very salty cold brew. But at St. Ann's Warehouse, the water had barely lapped at the door.

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"I can't even tell you how lucky we feel," Hamingson said. "Actually, we sold six tickets during the storm. Who the hell is buying in the midst of the hurricane?"

St. Ann's fall season was not scheduled to begin until next week's premiere of Mies Julie, a South African-produced Strindberg play whose load-in has been disrupted by the storm. The actors are still in South Africa; the production manager is stranded; and the props and costumes are in a container in Jersey City, awaiting the reopening of the port. Despite the obstacles, Hamingson promises the show will be ready for its Nov. 8 premiere—optimism typical of the city's theater community, which has spent the last two days feeling out damage as cautiously as a soldier in a firefight checking himself for wounds.

As the theaters of Lower Manhattan and the outer boroughs have dealt with flooding, blackouts, and the still-crippled subway system, Broadway theaters have been only figuratively dark. Because a single missed performance means losses in the thousands, Broadway producers hurried to reopen once the storm had passed, hoping to take advantage of a neighborhood full of tourists with nowhere to go. Most theaters were open for Wednesday matinée and evening performances, with the exception of a few large-scale musicals, like The Lion King and Mary Poppins, whose casts presumably could not make it into the city on time.

As Roundabout Theatre offered $20 hurricane-special tickets for Cyrano de Bergerac and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, several producers with openings planned for the weekend were faced with a tough decision—miss performances, or risk playing to half-full houses.

Despite missing two days of previews, The Heiress returns with two performances yesterday, and will open as planned on Nov. 1. But Theresa Rebeck's Katie Holmes vehicle Dead Accounts was forced to miss two days of vital technical rehearsal, pushing its first preview, originally planned for Nov. 3, to the 5th. A Christmas Story, the musical based on the classic movie comedy, had planned on starting performances on the 5th, but has postponed its first night until the 7th.

The postponement was necessary for A Christmas Story because the musical's elaborate sets and large cast required every possible minute of tech—a problem the relatively simple Dead Accounts does not have. Because A Christmas Story was already planning to take Nov. 6 off for election day, the lost performance will result in minimal box office pain. On the phone Wednesday, lead producer Gerald Goehring sounded relieved to be back at work.

"It's funny how disasters really do bring out the best in people," he said. "Being in the arts, I think we're even more sensitive to that. Two days ago, when we contacted all the cast and crew, when I personally heard their voices, talked to them, and they asked me what to do and what's going on, there was a big sigh of relief. I think we're just happy to be seeing each other again."

Just as the city has been fractured into those who have power and those who do not, those who suffered flooding and those who simply watched the rain, the mood of New York's theater community is fractured, and grows less cheerful away from Times Square. The most serious damage was suffered by theaters in the outer boroughs, including Red Hook and Coney Island. Ginny Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theaters, said that no one had been harder hit than Dick Zigun's Coney Island U.S.A.

"Their entire first floor was submerged under water for several hours," Louloudes said. "The main building is a landmark, and it has flood insurance, but that will only cover $20,000. They just did a renovation, and just took over a space, and that's what's heartbreaking."

On Monday night, as Andrew D. Hamingson cringed at the photos of the waterlogged carousel, those with theaters in the downtown flood zones stared in fear at images of water gushing into the World Trade Center site, and flooding as far west as First Avenue. 3-Legged Dog theater group, whose house is located just two blocks south of Ground Zero, was among Manhattan's worst hit. The dressing rooms, bathrooms, and basement of their Studio B theater all flooded, and its electrical system sustained unknown damage.

A press release from The Kitchen, a theater in Chelsea, said that "serious damage" would keep the space dark for a week. When reached for comment, marketing assistant Caitlin Gleason said that she was unable to elaborate on the damage until power was restored and losses could be assessed.

Few other Manhattan theaters suffered physically, but the loss of income wrought by a prolonged blackout could be devastating. Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, estimated the storm would cost them as much as $26,000, while Kristin Marting, artistic director of Soho's HERE Arts Center, expects to lose between $3,500 and $5,000 each day until power is restored—which ConEd promises will happen this weekend .

"The impact to us will be a loss of rental income, but all things considered, a small price to pay, it could have been worse," wrote Derek Lloyd, director of production at P.S. 122, in an email. "We feel terrible for the rental companies. Both are young companies, and losing shows like this will have an impact on them."

At the Horse Trade Theater Group's home on 4th St., the blackout threatens this weekend's programming, which includes a storytelling festival and the premiere of a musical called Isaac Babel and the Gangster King. Managing director Erez Ziv drove in yesterday to check on the facilities, and found an East Village nearly devoid of people, where drivers were too polite to honk, and the only place to buy coffee was the ever-stalwart Mud Truck.

"Anybody who didn't get flooded has a smile on his face," said Ziv. "I bumped into some tenants from the building. They were having fun the first night with candles and reading in the dark and enjoying the quaintness of it all, but that wore off as soon as their cell phones died."

Horse Trade artistic director Heidi Grumelot hopes to reopen Nov. 1, but knows that all depends on ConEd and the MTA.

"Hopefully it'll be Thursday," she said. "We're all just holding our breaths hoping that it can happen. Definitely it will be a party."