While accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Obies last night, Founding Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz described how an apartment fire helped him create the nonprofit Theatre for a New Audience.
Thank you to Michael Feingold and the OBIE Committee….Over four decades ago, when I was an out of work actor, on a very hot and humid New York summer’s day, while waiting for that big break to come, I decided to engage in a little D.I.Y. and polyurethane the wooden floor of my studio apartment.
I had just signed the lease and the place was empty. It was one room with a kitchenette with a gas stove which, as I was to learn later, had a pilot light.
The label on the can of polyurethane I was using warned that the product was highly inflammable and to keep doors and windows open. I carefully followed the instructions. I polyurethaned the entire floor. There was a small three foot wide wooden foyer. On one side of the foyer was the front door. On the other side, was the bathroom. My plan was to take a shower and then jump from the bathroom over the foyer and out the front door.
I had just gone into the bathroom and taken off my sneakers and socks when I heard WHOOSH and then the apartment exploded in flames from floor to ceiling This was not an imagined inferno like Dante. This was real. There was no time and there was no way out except to run barefoot through the flames. My feet were badly burned. The rest of me was fine.
After the hospital and a lawsuit, I won $50,000 — about $225,000 today . I immediately then did what any self-respecting out of work actor passionate about Shakespeare and other new plays would do. I took all that money won in the lawsuit and started this theatre. One of the best decisions I ever made.
This was 1979. In 1996, after we had been itinerant for 17 years, I went to Ted Rogers, who had just become Chair of our Board. I said we needed a home. Without missing a beat, he said “OK. Let’s try.” It took another 17 years to raise the money and build our home which is now named Polonksy Shakespeare Center. We’re now in our sixth season at PSC and about to present Soho Rep’s FAIRVIEW by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Next season will be Theatre for a New Audience’s 40thanniversary.
The lifetime achievement which is being recognized isn’t mine alone.
It’s nearly 40 years of achievement of hundreds of directors, designers, composers and choreographers and thousands of actors playing Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ibsen, Strindberg, Ionesco, Edward Bond, Adrienne Kennedy, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Suzan-Lori Parks, Wallace Shawn, Richard Nelson – some of the authors whose plays we produced and all these artists expressing the author’s text through their voice, not some beautiful sound or old idea, but their individual voice. It’ s the achievement of thousands of private, federal, state and New York City donors and Theatre for a New Audience staff and Board supporting these artists.
Of course, there are other theatre communities, but I doubt I could have founded this Theatre in any place other than New York because it is to this community that so many artists and audiences and critics and teachers and lovers of live theatre are drawn. These are the 64th OBIE Awards and for 64 years the OBIES have celebrated an amazing artistic community that inspires and generates life not just for now but for the next generation. It’s a privilege to live and work in this community.
A flash point is the lowest temperature at which a volatile chemical can explode from a spark. What happened years ago was that droplets of polyurethane hung in the air because there was so much humidity and finally there was so much polyurethane in the air and it was so hot that summer that the polyurethane heated up and it only took a tiny pilot light from the kitchenette stove to set off the explosion.
That flash point paradoxically created the seed money to start Theatre for a New Audience which has been endeavoring to create theatrical flash points — where ingredients of different artists from different times and cultures mix together, combust and radiate life. And mysteriously, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is built on Ashland Place. Ash land – the land of ash.