During the worst of the pandemic you could hear a pin drop on Broadway. The once colorful marquees sat shuttered and 2020 was truly a horrendous time for the entire entertainment industry. Live theatre almost whimpered its last breath.
Like London during the airstrikes of World War II, New York was resilient. We toughed it out, drenched ourselves in hand sanitizer, rolled up our sleeves at local pharmacies or the Javits Center, and we’ve all been slowly rewarded with a semblance of normalcy. As New Yorkers we choose to live and play in this big beautiful metropolis. Global pandemic or not, we were always going to get our nights out on the town back.
It was a blustery November afternoon when the American Theatre of Actors founder and creative director, James Jennings, graciously took the time to sit down with me in the cozy and antique-laden lobby of the Sargent Theatre. Casually dressed with jeans and a baseball cap, his presence is calming as he quipped “there will never be an end to live performances because it’s lasted since 556 B.C. with the Greeks.”
Sitting under a large framed photo of the world-renowned acting master Lee Strasberg, James fondly recalls the ten years he worked with him before starting ATA. Pausing briefly to take a phone call, he left his office door open and you can’t help but notice this is a very wise man. Dozens, if not hundreds, of theatre and history books adorn all the walls and around his desk; a lifetime’s passion for knowledge and the arts.
James meticulously went through some of the challenges of the pandemic: The intensive renovations to all four theatres, the vaccination protocols, temperature gauges installed… and then he joked that sanitizing every prop in the building after 46 years of shows was the biggest chore. Luckily, he had help from everyone in the theatre company and also the federal government. This was a ship that refused to sink.
Built in 1977, the American Theatre of Actors is not only an actual New York City landmark, but it is also the purest thespian experiment in America. Having worked with the best in the industry including Elia Kazan, James wanted a theatre that only showcased new playwrights and actors. Never one to do a revival or a remake, ATA’s philosophy has attracted talent like Edie Falco, Bruce Willis, Kathryn Hahn, and Chazz Palminteri to grace the stages; often before anyone ever knew who they were.
The theatre itself is located inside of a historic courthouse in Midtown. James explained that he got a special lease to open the first theatre, which eventually grew to four which is a rarity in this city. In total there is the Beckmann Theatre which can hold 35 attendees, the ATA Company Space which can hold 24, the intimate Sargent Theatre which can hold 65, and last but not least, the Cullum Theatre which can hold 125. When speaking of all four, James smirks, as he should, because they’re not only creations that he built with his own hands, but unique artistic wonders that make New York City the capital of live theatre.
As all of us have experienced, ATA suffered multiple losses in the company due to COVID. Three amazingly talented playwrights unfortunately passed and will be immensely missed. But James, and you see this in his demeanor the minute you meet him, is a fighter. He rallied the rest of the troops and against all odds survived as dozens of theatre companies went under.
Slightly north of what is considered traditional Broadway, ATA started in an area that was a late 70’s desolate wasteland, a la HBO’s The Deuce. Once word had spread that a new company with an original and brilliant philosophy was in town, the theatre watched the neighborhood drastically change as restaurants needed to keep up with the crowds. Taking a brief walk around 9th Avenue, it’s visible the area has come back from the chaos of 2020 and is still a vibrant area with an impressive culinary and bar scene for those looking for a classic NYC night out.
There is a reason ATA has donors like Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel, with legends like Robert DeNiro and Paul Sorvino on its board; the theater fills a cultural need that is the pulse in the heart of everything that makes New York City great. Walking with James on a tour of the theaters, you can feel the years of devotion in the air as the pitch-black high ceilings ground you and then whisk you away into the pageantry of a live performance. The entirety of ATA is a unicorn in the industry and is staunchly trucking on.
Currently, ATA will be premiering one of James Jennings' new, and original works, Together-Alone, written and directed by Jennings. The new play, set in a nursing home, ran in September of 2021 and deals with a father and son relationship during Covid, when many families faced the challenge of staying connected during the nursing home crisis. The play will be remounted December 1st until the 12th, and features Thomas Crouch*, Emery Lawrence and Danika St. Denis.
ATA Is located at 314 W. 54th St. New York City, NY 10019. Box Office opens at: 7:30pm (Sun. 2:30pm) Shows start at: 8:00pm (Sun. 3pm) Tickets are $20. Cash at the door or pay with this link. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/together-alone-remount-tickets-209490310157?aff=ebdsoporgprofile
This is a covid safe production.
WED. through SAT. 8pm showtime SUN. 3pm showtime
Beckmann Theatre 2nd Floor
Anyone who fancies themselves a theatre aficionado must visit 314 West 54th Street, as it is as much New York as the Guggenheim or Minetta Tavern. In no other city would any of this come so perfectly together, and it’s been too long for those seats to stay empty.