Flea Theater breaks ground on bigger digs

Actress Sigourney Weaver, a founding partner of Flea Theater, left, with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Dept. of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin, helped bust down a ceremonial wall at the Dec. 5 groundbreaking event the Flea Theater’s new home at 20 Thomas St.  Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony

Actress Sigourney Weaver, a founding partner of Flea Theater, left, with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Dept. of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin, helped bust down a ceremonial wall at the Dec. 5 groundbreaking event the Flea Theater’s new home at 20 Thomas St. Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  One of Downtown’s leading Off-Off Broadway theaters is moving to a space that’s nearly double the size of its old one.

Directors and supporters of Tribeca’s Flea Theater celebrated the groundbreaking of their new 20 Thomas St. home on Dec. 5, and jubilantly announced that — thanks to city, state and private funding — they now own the building.

“This is truly a most thrilling step in our story,” artistic director Jim Simpson said at the Dec. 5 ceremony, “and I could not be happier to be at the helm of the Flea right now.”

Since it was founded in 1996, the Flea has rented its 7,400-square-foot space at 41 White St., which has two theaters. Once the company moves a few blocks to 20 Thomas St. — construction is expected to be completed by fall of 2014 — the Flea will enjoy an 11,500-square-foot space that will include three theaters, as well as a rehearsal room.

The Flea was certainly able to thrive in the smaller facility — presenting more than 100 plays, as well as dance and music performances, and winning numerous Obies and other awards — but those who backed the move financially believe it will give a new and valuable boost to the Downtown arts scene.

“This little Flea is going to help make big dreams come true for a lot of young artists,” said Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president. “The cultural life of the city will really be defined by how many young people get an opportunity to come here from all over the world, just because they want to sing and dance and express themselves.”

Stringer, who will take office as the city’s next comptroller in January, said he had hoped to find a new home for the Flea ever since he became borough president eight years ago.

“So I’m glad that, with 27 days left as borough president, we finally got this thing done,” he quipped.

Keeping with the lightheartedness of the ceremony, Kate Levin, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, proclaimed the Flea’s new space to be “groovy doovy” — a phrase she said Simpson had taught her years ago.

“The Flea really has been a key part of transforming Lower Manhattan,” said Levin, “and in making sure that it is a cultural hub as well as a vibrant business destination, not to mention the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in New York.”

Funding for the purchase and renovation of 20 Thomas St. came nearly equally from public and private sources — $5 million from the city and $3.75 million from the state, with $8.15 million coming from private donors, according to Ron Lasko, the theater’s spokesperson.

He added that the Flea is still hoping to raise an additional $2 million in private money to finish renovating the building, and to fund an endowment to cover future operating expenses.

Film star Sigourney Weaver, who is married to Simpson and was a partner in founding the Flea 17 years ago, also spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. In addition to co-starring in two productions at the Flea, she had played a vital role in lobbying for the theater’s public funding in recent years.

“The Flea has renewed and energized established artists like myself, sustained emerging artists in theater and dance and showcased the next very talented generations,” said Weaver. “We couldn’t be more proud, or more grateful to the city, the state and the countless individuals who have made this dream come true for all of us.”

Image courtesy of Flea Theater Good art works on many levels: A rendering of the new Flea Theater depicts its three performance spaces.

Image courtesy of Flea Theater
Good art works on many levels: A rendering of the new Flea Theater depicts its three performance spaces.

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