EXCLUSIVE: The Culture Project, a 20-year-old, perennially cash-strapped East Village theater company that’s best known for the anti-death-penalty drama The Exonerated, filed for bankruptcy protection this week.
The June 29 filing was under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy code, generally referred to as “reorganization bankruptcy.” “It’s a dispute with the landlord and we hope to resolve it in the bankruptcy case,” Culture Project lawyer Joel Shafferman said in a brief phone interview. He declined to elaborate, but said the filing won’t affect Simon Says, a commercial production about a psychic starring Brian Murray that’s renting the Culture Project’s 199-seat Lynn Redgrave theater. It’s scheduled to begin previews on Wednesday.
According to the filing, the nonprofit’s landlord seeks $430,000 in unpaid rent and real estate taxes, a claim the Culture Project disputes. A representative for its landlord, identified in the filing as Rogers Investment, couldn’t be reached. Overall, the Culture Project’s liabilities are $500,000 to $1 million and its assets below $50,000. Little Seer Productions, a producer of Simon Says, is owed $19,000. Trudie Styler, a former Culture Project board member who starred in a generally well-reviewed adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the theater in 2013, is owed $50,000, for unspecified “services rendered.” Debra Winger, Gabriel Byrne, Mia Farrow and Richard Dreyfuss also have appeared on its stage.
The Exonerated, by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, tells the true stories of six innocent death row survivors. The 2002 show, which was made into a 2005 Court TV movie, raised over $800,000 for the people depicted in the play, according to Culture Project’s website. The company itself realized only a $50,000 profit, according to a 2006 New York Times story by Jesse Green.
It ended the 2013-14 season with liabilities exceeding assets by about $1 million. In September 2015, days before previews were to begin, it postponed the premiere of a new play that Cynthia Nixon was directing and Rosie O’Donnell was co-producing. MotherStruck!, about a single, gay woman without health insurance seeking to have a child, ultimately had its opening pushed back by two months.
The Culture Project’s founder, artistic director and board president, Allan Buchman, a onetime importer and restorer of fine keyboard instruments, didn’t return an email for comment. He’s attributed the company’s woes to losing a foundation grant that had been pledged and losing income from a tenant in its basement, SubCulture, which scaled back its programming.
In August 2015, several New York International Fringe Festival shows were booked at the Culture Project, which had a broken air conditioning system. Ron Lasko, a Fringe spokesman, said at a performance of a show called Divine/Intervention the interior temperature was about 100 degrees. “It was horrible,” he said. “One of the worst Fringe experiences ever.” Shows were moved to the Soho Playhouse at the eleventh hour. “There was no malice or incompetence,” Lasko added about the Culture Project. “Things break,” he said. But with five Fringe shows booked there a day, the snafu was a mess.