A return to Provincetown Playhouse

18. December 2010.

FOUR YEARS AGO THIS MONTH I left my staff job at a city weekly magazine for parts unknown. To paraphrase, the Grateful Dead, it’s been a long, strange trip. I’ve delved into community development and also had the good fortune to travel a lot the past two years on the wine beat. And now, my most recent landing: my first byline in the Wall Street Journal.

Recently I covered the reopening of the Provincetown Playhouse, considered the spiritual home of modern American theater in Greenwich Village. Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay were in the founding ensemble in 1918. Along the way, Edward Albee, David Mamet, John Guare, Charles Busch premiered plays here.

The theater’s back story is as sketchy as it is storied. Over the course of interviewing people the past week, I spoke with those who both praised and decried the renovation of the theater (I’d say, in equal numbers), which is owned by New York University, and used for its theater educational program. Preservationists and residents mourn the loss of a community theater—one of number that has disappeared over the years. Those working in the living theater are thrilled to have a functional playhouse that continues the work originated on that spot.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is the former theater’s most vocal defender.  “It’s already a loss—there’s almost nothing left of what they call the Provincetown Playhouse, and if it stops being a theater of any sort, it’s a real diminution of the cultural heritage of the neighborhood.” GVSHP sums it up here.

Berman belongs to a group of community activists who also protest what they see as one more finger in NYU’s long-reaching grip on the Village.  There were plenty of placard-holding protesters at a rally at the theater’s re-opening last week. And, too,  a woman who performed in the playhouse some 60 years ago, and another whose father and grandfather did. Such memories are more than cultural, and makes balancing history, sentiment and progress even more of a slippery slope.

But there are people like Joe Salvatore, a teacher in NYU’s program, who say it’s about having a fully functioning modern theater instead of a cultural relic. The new playhouse, he says, not only recalls its experimental past, but also thrusts it into the future.

“It’s much more in line with the way experimental theaters look in the city and across the country,” Salvatore told me. “A static theater trapped in time does not allow us to carry on the legacy, which is to provide a space for new voices.”

A lot of people think preservation coverage is about dealing with fusty old people afraid to lose the past.  There’s a lot of that. But, I find it full of local heroes, who in preserving heritage, also create new histories. I’m looking forward to getting more of these stories online.

In the end, we kept the Journal story focused on the event that relaunches the renovated playhouse, a panel discussion with Edward Albee and other experimental theater icons. I spoke with Edward Albee for 6.33 minutes on the phone, and am still wondering what the heck he said to me.

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