Despite threat of eviction, 13th St. Rep sol
Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Edith O’Hara, defiant director of the 13th St. Repertory Theater
By Jennifer O’Reilly
Edith O’Hara, an 89-year-old woman with an incredibly sharp mind for her age, has dedicated her golden years to promoting the power of small theater. For the past 34 years, she has nurtured the work of young, undiscovered playwrights, actors, and directors by giving them a safe haven to perform their works at the13th Street Repertory Theater. But since January, the home she’s created has come under the threat of eviction.
The short story of the litigation involves a company called, ironically, White Knight, Ltd. who came to O’Hara’s rescue financial in 1982 to help her buy the theater. At the time, White Knight seemed to share the interest of O’Hara of promoting small theater in New York City. But in early 2006, White Knight issued an eviction notice demanding that the ground floor, which houses the theater, be vacated by February 28, 2006. O’Hara has fought off the eviction notices of the majority share holder for almost a full year now, but the threat looms large that someday she won’t be able to protect the space she’s worked so hard to cultivate.
The historical brownstone that houses the theater at 50 W13th St. is also O’Hara’s home, but she’s made it clear that she doesn’t wish to live there if she can’t continue with her work in the theater. “They said would give me the so called sweetheart deal where I could live here and stay the rest of my life,” O’Hara says of the current negotiations between her and White Knight. “But I want to leave the theater as a legacy.”
The latest installation of O’Hara’s legacy is a three week run of Tennessee Williams’ undiscovered plays, found in a trunk in 2003, and published shortly after by Samuel French. The four one-acts chosen by director Stephan Morrow, who was a student of Elia Kazan, make up an evening called “Pieces of Paradise” which runs at the theater on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesdays through November 12th.
Tennessee Williams visited the 13th St. Rep shortly before his death to watch a version they’d staged of one of his lesser-known plays, “Outcry.” O’Hara remembers him as a somewhat sad figure, disillusioned with Broadway, but more than willing to talk with her audience about what was on the horizon for theater in New York. “He sat right down on the lip of our stage with his feet on the steps and talked with everybody… He said that small theaters were where the future of theater lay in New York City. And it’s appearing that way now. Look what’s happening on Broadway.”
O’Hara hopes that the Williams plays will be a draw for people to come into the theater and learn more about its rich and storied history. Recently, the show was buoyed by an extremely positive review from NYtheater.com writer Martin Denton. Actor Timothy Lee, who appears in “Pieces of Paradise,” calls the works “a rich seven layer cake where the characters just go deeper and deeper” and says he feels privileged to be working on them.
A visit from Tennessee Williams is just one of the highlights of O’Hara’s career. But perhaps more significant were the nights in Warren, Pennsylvania, over 30 years ago, when she took notice of a few young actors at her summer theater. “We had converted a barn, and we had built quite a following and a group of actors from all over the country. On dark nights these actors would be creating their own things. Some of it was music and it was wonderful. I said ‘Why don’t you see if you can put on an original production of some kind?’”
The resulting play was a musical called “Touch,” which was subsequently seen by a New York producer and brought to a theater on E 4th St. in New York City for an extremely successful, year-long run. Through this experience, Edith found that nurturing people to create was an extremely gratifying experience, one she wished to continue. These days she finds herself turning down large amounts of money $2 million is the current offer on the table from White Knight in exchange for continuing to have a space where small theater can be produced on a daily basis.
If this sort of integrity seems a dying feature in today’s bottom line society, that’s even more reason for Edith to grasp on the one thing that she truly cares about. “I am holding out,” she says, “because I want the theater to remain.”