EXCLUSIVE: The nation’s oldest theater company specializing in nurturing women writers and directors is in a seven-month court battle to recover $30,000, a significant sum for a nonprofit institution trying to survive a pandemic.
In June 2020, WP Theater, the 42-year-old company originally known as the Women’s Project, sued Edison Ballroom, an Art Deco venue in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, in New York Supreme Court. WP seeks the return of its $30,000 deposit, plus $5,000 in legal fees, that secured space for a gala planned for the previous month. The event — which in past years had raised as much as a quarter of WP’s annual budget — was cancelled when the state first shut down large, non-essential gatherings in response to Covid-19.
According to the venue rental contract, the theater company is entitled to a full refund of its deposit should “Acts of God” make it impossible or impractical to hold the event.
Aaron Pierce, a lawyer and WP board member, demanded reimbursement in a May letter to Edison Ballroom management. Edison’s attorney, Nathan Ferst, declined. “While rescheduling the event is one option, a present refund of your client’s payment to date is not,” he wrote back in a letter filed in court.
Ferst raised the possibility of a bankruptcy filing should the ballroom be forced to refund deposits. “However, a voluntary revision of the agreement between our respective clients will ensure that your client will get the benefit of its bargain by the continued existence and economic viability of Edison Ballroom LLC, which will then be able to continue to work with your client toward a satisfactory conclusion,” Ferst wrote.
Michael Sag, the theater group’s managing director, countered that Edison Ballroom’s “economic viability is of no concern” to WP. He added in an affidavit filed in court that no industry has been more negatively affected by the pandemic than theater.
The litigation highlights the precariousness of culture and hospitality enterprises during the shutdown, notwithstanding government aid designed to tide them over. In April, Edison Ballroom was approved for a $445,400 Paycheck Protection Program loan, which is administered by the Small Business Administration and the Treasury Department. WP, which had a $1.5 million budget in 2017-18, received a $196,000 PPP loan. A portion of PPP loans can be forgiven under certain conditions.
Allan Wartski, who is listed on the Edison Ballroom website as its owner, didn’t return an email for comment. (The ballroom is a separate business from the adjacent Hotel Edison, which is scheduled to reopen next month.) A WP spokeswoman declined to comment.
Women’s Project was founded in 1978 by Julia Miles as a program of The American Place Theatre. Miles, who died in March at age 90, later established Women’s Project & Productions as an independent nonprofit company. It has championed the work of many of the country’s most prominent playwrights and directors, including Emily Mann, Joan Micklin Silver, Diane Paulus, Lynn Nottage, Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Ruhl. It’s spending $128,000 this year to rent the 108-seat McGinn/Cazale Theatre on the Upper West Side, according to a recent financial statement.
In November, Judge Arthur Engoron denied WP’s motion for expedited relief — summary judgement in lieu of a complaint — ruling that it was the wrong mechanism for what’s arguably a breach of contract case. He also denied Edison Ballroom’s motion to dismiss the suit, and encouraged the two sides to settle. He didn’t offer a written opinion about Edison’s most intriguing defense, that neither party could have envisioned “a shut-down of the scope which the world has been undergoing” and that terms of the contract should be temporarily suspended.
Other Edison Ballroom clients sued in 2020 to recover deposits, including Columbia University, which paid $99,000 for a law school prom; a wedding ($40,000) and a bat mitzvah ($45,000). The cases are pending. According to New York theater leaders, responses from other venues have run the gamut, from offering full refunds for cancelled galas to multi-year reimbursement installment plans.