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The Future of Studio Arena (ask Ethan McSweeny … please!)

by ANTHONY CHASE

ARTVOICE Theater Editor

Word is that the banks that loaned funds to Studio Arena Theatre with the theater building as collateral have agreed to give the structure to Shea’s Performing Arts Center for use as a presenting house — provided the bankruptcy court will approve it.  This move would allow Studio Arena to continue to serve the community as a venue for live theater. 

Over the past few weeks, Studio Arena Theatre, which had filed for Chapter 11, or a reorganization bankruptcy, requested a switch to Chapter 7, or liquidation bankruptcy.  Liquidation means that the theater would go out of business permanently, and its assets would be sold off to reimburse creditors.  The major asset of the theater is the building itself, which is already heavily mortgaged, reportedly to five separate banking institutions.  (The theater also raided its own endowment, and therefore owes money to the Studio Arena Foundation, as well as to numerous other businesses).  What fixtures and equipment remain in the building is a subject of much conjecture – there is a pervasive rumor that tools and equipment were illegally pilfered from the scene shop after the theater shuttered. 

If the plan to transfer ownership of the building to Shea’s goes forward, a model would be devised whereby Studio Arena Theatre, formerly a producing theater, would become a presenting house, possibly booking two touring shows, two locally produced professional shows, and two college shows each year.  Those involved hope to return Studio Arena Theatre to its mission of offering high quality legitimate theater – a goal that was, arguably, abandoned twenty years ago when commercial concerns began to eclipse artistic concerns almost entirely at the theater.

Many questions remain.  Among them:

Would the Studio Arena name be retained? 

Would the Studio Arena function as a union house? – Union contracts negotiated by LORT (the League of Resident Theaters) are widely viewed as having hobbled Studio Arena in its efforts to balance its books and alter its producing model. 

What would become of the venerable Studio Arena Theatre School?  Co-founded by Jane Keeler and Lars Potter in the 1920s, its alumni include Nancy Marchand, Michael Bennett and Amanda Blake; young James Whitmore and Charles Durning worked there, and in her youth, character actress Reta Shaw served on its faculty. 

Given the right circumstances, numerous parties are likely to be interested to make use of the facility or to become involved in Studio Arena Theatre’s suspended educational programs.  Much jockeying for position can be expected.  Who would evaluate proposals and using what criteria?

At the same time, while the leadership at Shea’s Buffalo can be lauded for expanding the subscription audience and for sustaining a fairly high standard of Broadway musical touring shows, they have no experience whatsoever with legitimate theater, and no friends within the highest echelon of regional theaters.  In informal conversations, those involved cheerfully toss out the possibility of partnerships with Geva Theatre in Rochester – not exactly a thrilling prospect, as that institution is not on anyone’s list of America’s most exciting theaters.  If Shea’s is to provide leadership, we can only hope that they will seek input from someone with more of a national perspective, rather than pull ideas from the tops of their heads or fall prey to every opportunist waiting to pounce.    Otherwise, the most we can expect is a financially responsible but ultimately mediocre theater – hardly worth the effort. Any number of individuals are likely to present themselves as experts.  Such people came out of the woodwork as Studio Arena slid into the abyss.

One of the few people in Western New York whose background truly impresses me as making him qualified to chart a path for Studio Arena  is Ethan McSweeny, co-artistic director (with his wife, Vivienne Benesch) of the Chautauqua Theater Company, who was dubbed a “wunderkind” and a director with “the Midas touch” by  American Theatre magazine.  A protégé of theater icon Michael Kahn, McSweeny has worked on Broadway and at a litany of the nation’s most prestigious resident regional theaters. He received the first-ever undergraduate degree in theater and dramatic arts from Columbia University and has served as associate artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey (2000-2004), resident director at New Dramatists in New York (2001-2002) and (with Michael Kahn) associate director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. (1993-1997). He currently sits on the executive board of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.  Now in his fifth summer at Chautauqua, McSweeny has directed Death of a Salesman (’08) The Just (’07), The Cherry Orchard (’06), All My Sons (’05), Cobb (’03), and the New Play Workshops of Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints You Should Know, Quincy Long’s Aux Cops, and Rinne Groff’s What Then for the company.  He also directed the New York premieres of 100 Saints You Should Know and Jason Grote’s 1001, which were both chosen to be among the top ten productions of 2007 by Time Out and Entertainment Weekly magazines. He received a Tony nomination and Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for his direction of the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man starring Elizabeth Ashley, Charles Durning, Christine Ebersole, Spalding Gray, Michael Learned, Chris Noth, and Jonathan Hadary.  He also earned national attention for his productions of Aeschylus’ The Persians, Euripides’ Ion, Willy Holtzman’s Sabina and John Logan’s Never the Sinner (Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards).  His national credits also include Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Guthrie in Minneapolis; Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Centerstage in Maryland; George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the world premieres of In This Corner at the Old Globe in San Diego, 1001 at the Denver Center Theatre (Ovation Award) and Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water at both the Guthrie and the Globe (San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award); the new musical Chasing Nicolette at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia (Barrymore Award nomination); the world premiere of Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade at South Coast Rep in California (OCIE Award); and productions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at the Guthrie (Star-Tribune Award).

No one else in the region can match this resume of accomplishments or even come close.  Most importantly, at Chautauqua, he’s proven he can provide sound leadership and theatrical excitement at a regional institution.  I’d say somebody should ask Mr. McSweeny if he has any ideas for Studio Arena Theatre.


  • Brantwood

    BRAVO!

  • C

    The plan currently focuses on Buffalo State College receiving the 2 college slots (according to rumor – if it’s wrong, please reply!).

    I hope the opportunity to present at Studio Arena is opened to other colleges as well, perhaps in an annual lottery type system. It’d be a shame to ignore the chance to help UB bring a production out of the suburbs, or even bring a Niagara or Fredonia production into Buffalo and give those students a chance to experience a wider, more urban audience.

    Ultimately it’s a shame that Studio Arena is losing its status as a producing theatre, and it’s a shame it can’t go to a true producing theatre company in the area (Kaleidoscope must be looking for a space now, eh? Or maybe RLTP could move out of the movie theatre) but at least it’s continuing to present something.