The Classics Find a Home in Harlem

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

At a time when both the vitality of the theater and the distinct character of many of Manhattan’s neighborhoods have declined, the Classical Theatre of Harlem has found a way to foster a connection between an arts group and its local community. But it’s not what might be expected from the organization’s name.

“I don’t see our theater as a black theater — it’s not,” the artistic director and co-founder of the theater, Alfred Preisser, said. “The idea of classicism, to me, means things that people have in common, things in the human experience that are universal and that last. And that’s what we’re working on.”

Mr. Preisser, 43, was sitting, with his business partner and co-founder, Christopher McElroen, 33, in a dressing room at the Classical Theatre, which is next door to the Harlem School of the Arts on St. Nicholas Avenue and 141st Street. The previous night, they had held their first dress rehearsal for “Macbeth,” which they performed this past weekend in Brooklyn’s Von King Park, and will perform tonight and this Friday and Saturday in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. (All performances are free.)

Mr. Preisser’s statement about universality, made with his characteristic forcefulness, discloses much about how he and Mr. McElroen, both of whom are white, approach their work. The Classical Theatre of Harlem performs classic plays with mostly black actors, before an audience that reflects the diversity of the city. The audiences average about 90% of capacity, and the majority are Harlem residents — although, as the news has spread, people from other parts of the city also have started filling the seats, helping the theater grow from a shoestring operation, begun with money from its founders’ pockets, to an off-Broadway company with a budget of $700,000.And the theater is now part of an ambitious plan to revitalize 125th Street.

Eight years ago, Messrs. Preisser and McElroen were teaching at the Harlem School of the Arts. Mr. Preisser conducted a Shakespeare performance workshop with a group of teenagers, and he was moved by their response to and enthusiasm for the material. “The whole thing reminded me of why I like Shakespeare in the first place,” he said.

His students’ excitement and the energetic style they brought to the productions, which incorporated music and Afro-Caribbean dance, made him think about starting a resident theater.

“It was a very profound experience for me,” Mr. Preisser said. It suggested to him that “this was a place where we could do all of our favorite plays, and where there would be an audience for them that wasn’t the same old audience.” Instead, it would be “an audience that was diverse, that was youthful, an audience that came to the theater wanting an experience. They weren’t going to sit there and just be polite.They were going to be involved.”

Messrs. Preisser and McElroen got permission — but no money — from the Harlem School of the Arts, and they started staging works like “Macbeth,” “Lysistrata,” and August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In their first two years, audiences were at about 58% capacity, Mr. McElroen said, and, like all beginning companies, they were turned down for grants.

But they started to gain recognition for their work. One noteworthy show was a 2003 production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks: A Clown Show,” directed by Mr. McElroen, which moved after the end of its uptown run to the off-Broadway East 13th Street Theatre.

Asked if there were any companies the two look to for inspiration, Mr. Preisser mentioned Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, which did two stage seasons in New York before moving on to radio (broadcasting, most famously, “The War of the Worlds”). In its stage life, the Mercury produced, among other things, an all-black “Macbeth.”

The Mercury Theatre “created classics for a popular audience,” Mr. Preisser said. “It took on great plays but also was very upfront about the fact that it wanted to graban American audience by the collar.”

Mr. Preisser sees a similarity between Welles’s seat-of-the-pants operating style and his and Mr. McElroen’s work. “There’s a lot of improvisation going on here, a lot of making it up as we go along,” he said. “Not that we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re not proving a thesis; we’re just doing the plays that we love.”

This season, those plays will be “King Lear,” “Marat/Sade,” and “Electra.” “They all have big things to say, but we can approach them in a way that is essentially unique to us, “Mr. Preisser said. “We can make them fun; we can bring them directly to an audience; and we can let the chips fall where they may.”

Messrs. Preisser and McElroen are determined to maintain their seat-of-the-pants artistic style, even though, these days, they’re on a much more stable basis, financially. The company now gets money from a variety of foundations and corporations, including J.P. Morgan, Washington Mutual, Time Warner, and Bloomberg. (Interestingly, none of Harlem’s wealthy new residents has come forward to endow the theater. “We’ve never had anybody write that enormous check,” Mr. McElroen said.)

The theater recently took a big step and was designated Off-Broadway, which means it hires on a union contract. “Now our actors are paid a weekly salary. They get contributions to their health and pension funds,” Mr. McElroen said. He pointed out that Harlem has never had a union-recognized off-Broadway theater. “This is a momentous occasion,” he said.

Although going off-Broadway means having less flexibility, the two said it was a positive step.”You have to demonstrate to the actors that you’re going somewhere,” Mr. Preisser said. “You have to pay them back for investing in you.”

And they are determined to keep the organization lean, so that they can continue putting their resources onstage.

Now the Classical is part of a bid by Danforth Development Partners to renovate the Victoria Theater, an old vaudeville house a few doors east of the Apollo Theater on 125th Street. The Harlem Community Development Corporation, the state board in charge of the theater, has narrowed the bidding to two finalists. The process is now a year and a half behind schedule, but Mr. Preisser said he expected the decision to come in late fall.

In Danforth’s plan, the Victoria would be turned into a ballroom, an Ian Schrager hotel, and two theaters, which would function as the permanent home of the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the New York performance space of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Having that kind of home would mean a lot to both the theater and the neighborhood, Messrs. Preisser and McElroen said. It would allow them to extend shows that now have to close, because the space is used for Harlem School of the Arts classes. And it would bring to Harlem a piece of the billion-dollar theater industry, including all the things that come with it: people parking their cars, going to local restaurants, and spending money in the neighborhood.

“It would be a major destination,” Mr. McElroen said. “I hope it happens.

The New York Sun

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