A theater for `professional amateurs'

It seems like an odd way to fill a theater in New York, but when the staff of Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side want to announce a performance, they go ``postering.'' This means cruising the neighborhood around their World War I vintage theater, putting up posters, talking to local merchants, and generally having a good time. Though this kind of promotion may recall amateur theatricals, the results are top quality. At Symphony Space you can see dance, jazz, classical music, or Gilbert and Sullivan -- all in a comfortable, 900-seat theater for very comfortable prices, usually under $10, sometimes free.

These days Symphony Space is the place to be seen. The trick, says Isaiah Sheffer, co-artistic director, is to choose performers who can entertain and enrich, and who will themselves benefit from the chance to perform in New York. The result, happily, is a blend of professional and amateur exuberance that keeps audiences coming back for more.

Symphony Space's most amazing attribute is the diversity of its performance offerings. In the remaining days of March one can partake of folk music, jazz, Mexican folklore, ballet, and klezmer music and song. Later on there will be modern dance, contemporary jazz, a musical debut, and classical offerings.

Once or twice a month, readings of short stories and poetry are held, where professional actors and amateur elocutionists put authors to the test of reading aloud. Where else can you hear actors like William Hurt and Fritz Weaver reading stories to you for $5? And James Joyce fans are on notice now. Bloomsday, June 16, is scheduled as a wide-ranging reading of ``Ulysses'' selections, for as long as it takes.

The theater itself began as an ice skating rink shortly after the turn of the century, but was changed to a movie palace when the skating vogue passed. Its fortunes deteriorated with the decline of the Upper West Side in the early 1970s. By the late '70s, demolition seemed inevitable.

Then in 1978, when Mr. Sheffer and his co-artistic director Allan Miller were looking for space for the American Symphony Orchestra, they found the gloomy, old theater and began work.

At first they shared it with a wrestling promoter.

``We had to dismantle the ring after the Friday night bouts,'' Mr. Miller recalls.

In their early efforts they were helped by the artistic nature of the Upper West Side community and by local merchants who knew that in New York commerce follows the arts.

``Mostly, it was the community that made the difference,'' Sheffer says. ``People realized what a wonderful thing it was to have a live theater and live music at a decent price.''

They've also been helped by the frantic commercial resurgence of the Upper West Side. Gentrification, the combined blessing and scourge of older cities, means that there are more people with money to support Symphony Space (which currently has over 2,000 sustaining members) but that the property the old theater sits on is worth millions. Sheffer and Miller had to fight a four-year court battle just to get some tax relief as a nonprofit cultural organization.

``Money is still the main problem,'' notes Kay Cattarulla, the group's director of development, but foundations and corporate America have helped out as well. ``See that second row?'' she asks, pointing to the theater's newly re-covered seats. ``Avis Car Rental paid for it. When you're No. 2, you try harder.''

Most of the groups and performers are from the city, such as the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players who are based at Symphony Space. Some performers come just to get the experience of performing in New York -- such as the San Francisco Mime Group and Sydney's Terra Australis Incognita Music Theater.

``It's a place where people who need to perform can find a paying audience in a city that takes performance seriously,'' says managing director Linda Rogers. ``Maybe that's the most important thing we do.''

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