Downtown Alliance, July 12, 2008

Downtown Dialogue


By Liz Berger

Bright lights and big productions have cemented Times Square as the world’s theater capital—but Lower Manhattan staged New York’s first play in 1732, at a 400-seat theater near the intersection of Pearl Street and Maiden Lane.

By 1798, the elaborate Park Theatre opened. This three-story building on Park Row sat 1,700 and featured green doors, an interior ornamented in light pink and gold, and a Shakespeare statue in the center of the building. In fact, a production of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It was the theater’s first offering.

Culture makes a community by giving it an identity. Indigenous Native American experiences aside, until the Dutch, and then the English made culture a priority, New Amsterdam and New York were mere colonial outposts. Emerson said that “thoughts rule the world,” and any community that wants to be more than a place to work or sleep must express its thoughts and dreams in public.

New York culture started in Lower Manhattan (the first opera house was here, too), and people in the entertainment business quickly discovered a huge local appetite for plays and concerts. Fast forward to summer 2008, and Lower Manhattan’s cultural appetite is still ravenous: Downtown’s River to River Festival, which began its 7th season on May 28 (and runs until September 15), will showcase over 150 artists and nearly 350 events for an expected audience of more than a million! In just six short years, River to River has become the largest free cultural festival in the United States and a significant economic driver in Lower Manhattan. The impact on local business is huge: while 80% of attendees neither work nor live Downtown, 70% of them dine, shop or visit a cultural site before or after performances.

Free access, extraordinary artists, unusual settings: River to River has it all. Big-ticket events like the Sonic Youth concert planned for Castle Clinton this July 4, and more intimate offerings like Bang on a Can at Arts<World Financial Center and Movie Nights on the Elevated Acre at 55 Water Street, outdoor screenings of such New York-themed classics as Woody Allen’s Manhattan. What could be more classically Downtown than watching a movie on a lawn on a deck 40 feet in the air, surrounded on three sides by skyscrapers and on the fourth by the panorama of the East River and the harbor?

River to River is happening right now, as is Playing the Building, an art installation by Talking Heads’ front-man David Byrne. This iconic piece, at once visual and performance art, uses wind, vibration and physical contact to activate devices attached to the structure of the Battery Maritime Building, a 1909 Beaux-Arts jewel-box on South Street. The devices cause the building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate, turning the building itself into a musical instrument.

The performing arts happen Downtown 365 days a year. There’s Sitelines, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s annual site-specific dance performance series. And, 3-Legged Dog Media and Theater Group, which focuses on large-scale experimental work in an architecturally spectacular new space built into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel garage on Greenwich Street. Our largest theatre is the 743-seat Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, an active partner with the Tribeca Film Festival, River to River Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival, and home to the television show Inside the Actors Studio. And, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year is The Triplex, the BMCC Performing Arts Center, with music, theater, dance, film and visual arts for adults and kids.

The performing arts are central to Lower Manhattan’s past, present and future. An essential element of the plan for the World Trade Center site is the Frank Gehry-designed Performing Arts Center, or PAC. Anchored by the world-renown Joyce Theater, expect this 1,000-seat venue to be a local, national and global leader in dance. To learn about this development—and existing cultural centers Downtown—check out our Web site,

Downtown is returning to its roots as a haven for New York performing arts. As part of this summer’s River to River Festival, the New York Classical Theatre is staging Macbeth in Battery Park in June and July. The audience meets at Castle Clinton and follows the action through the park: As the play moves from scene to scene, the audience follows the performance from place to place. What a great way for the company to interpret Macbeth’s heath, and what a great way for the audience to see some of New York’s best waterfront views and the extraordinary horticultural achievements of the Battery Conservancy! This is not your parents’ Burnham Wood, and Lower Manhattan is a performing arts destination bar none.

— Liz Berger is President of the Downtown Alliance




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