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Rooftop Theatre: Lincoln Center’s New Venue, The Claire Tow Theater, and the Opening Production of “Slowgirl”

June 10, 2012


Lincoln Center Theatre facade night light lighting LCT LCT3 "Vivian Beaumont" "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

Someone at Lincoln Center knows what they’re doing, and it makes me really happy.

A new theatre in Manhattan has just popped up in the most unlikely of places — on the roof of another theatre!  And it’s not just any roof; it’s the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, the home of the Lincoln Center Theater and the current production of War Horse, a building originally designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1965.  (You may recognize Eero Saarinen’s other prominent works of American architecture such as Washington-Dulles International Airport or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.)

Designed by H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, the new Claire Tow Theater sits lightly atop the monumental Saarinen structure, just barely peeking over the thick concrete roof as it looks down onto the reflecting pool and plaza below.  If you weren’t paying attention you’d almost miss it during the day, as its blue-green glass facade and low profile almost make it disappear into the sky vault above.  At night, though, the structure glows with light, providing a trim illuminated “cap” to the Beaumont Theater below.

I happened to find out about the new theater by chance last night as I was browsing online show listings for productions I wanted to see.  Having lived in New York for almost two years I thought I was fairly up-to-date on the theatre and architecture scene in Manhattan, but I had never even heard of the Claire Tow Theater until I saw the listing last night.  To me it seemed as if it had suddenly appeared overnight!

Ever since I moved to New York, Lincoln Center has always been on the top of my list for places to go see theatre, both for the beauty of the campus and the quality of the productions.  It also reminds me a lot of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a place I frequented a lot with my family when I was younger.  Unfortunately, as any New Yorker (or even tourist) knows, tickets to anything at Lincoln Center aren’t cheap.

Lincoln Center Plaza fountain Koch Theater Theatre "New York" "New York City" NYC ballet night light lighting design architecture

Imagine my excitement last night when I discovered (gasp) $20 tickets to a show at Lincoln Center!  The first thoughts that ran through my head: this can’t be right … this must be some kind of sale; the show must not be very good; oh I see, the show’s still in previews, that explains it.

As it turns out, all tickets to shows at the new Claire Tow Theater are $20, whether the show’s in previews or not!  It’s part of Lincoln Center’s “New Artists, New Audiences” effort to bring affordable, high quality theatre back to Manhattan.  The initiative is headed by Lincoln Center’s LCT3 company, which is devoted to developing new artists, performers, playwrights, and designers (as well as new and younger audiences), on one of the most prestigious theatre campuses in the country.

With a chance to see a new play and a new theater at Lincoln Center for only $20, I was sold!  I printed my ticket for the opening production of Slowgirl by Greg Pierce just two hours before curtain, and jumped on the train into Manhattan.

Just a short elevator ride up from the main lobby of the Beaumont, the first view you have upon your arrival to the Claire Tow Theater is not of the lobby, but of the green roof and gorgeous, spacious roof terrace that sits in front of it like an urban oasis in a concrete desert.  Obviously, on the beautiful summer night that it was, I had to indulge in a bit of fresh air before stepping into the theater.

Lincoln Center Theatre Roof Deck LCT LCT3 "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

Lincoln Center Theatre Green Roof LCT LCT3 "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

Lincoln Center Theatre Plaza Roof Deck LCT LCT3 "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

Stepping out onto the roof terrace was an immediately calming experience.  The stunning views of the surrounding skyline, Avery Fisher Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, Julliard, the Empire Hotel, Time Warner Center, and the fountain in the Center’s main plaza combined with the cool breeze, the surrounding greenery and the quiet din of city sounds in the distance to create the perfect place to relax and enjoy refreshments and conversation before the show.  I almost felt like I was getting away with robbery for being able to enjoy this incredible outdoor space for the ticket price I paid, but at the same time I felt an air of New-York-sophistication for finding this hidden-in-plain-sight gem.

As I turned around from the glass railing at the edge of the deck I was able to take in a view of the new theater from the outside.  The modern, rectilinear glass structure with its louvered freestanding facade resembles more of a midtown office building than a traditional theater, but the architecture is clean and honest, which I can respect for its simplicity (as well as efficiency) in this setting (the building is LEED Silver certified).  Some people may find this style too cold and minimalist for a theatre, but I find it a refreshing change from the dark, ornate, and heavy Broadway theatres of midtown.  Besides, the architecture at Lincoln Center is famous for its use of glass and transparency, and with the natural light and views from this spot, who would want to use solid walls anyway?

Lincoln Center Theatre facade roof deck terrace LCT LCT3 "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

The light and airy main double-height lobby is just as modern, with a long wood-topped bar stocked with a long list of beverages and snacks that should cater well to the young, foodie New York crowd.  (Bonus: the bar is open well before and after shows to allow ample time for enjoying refreshments and socializing on the roof terrace.)  With 15 minutes till curtain I put down the wine list and headed into the theatre.

As I mentioned earlier, I was there to see a new play by Greg Pierce titled “Slowgirl.”  Pierce has apparently been working with John Kander (of Kander & Ebb fame — composer for Chicago, Cabaret, and more) on a new musical in addition to working on “Slowgirl”.  I’m a huge fan of new plays (more on that later), so I was really excited for the show.

Walking into the cozy, 100ish-seat, end-stage style theatre, my excitement grew after seeing Rachel Hauck‘s set — a tiny two-room bungalow on stilts (complete with hammock) surrounded by a colorful, abstract, endless jungle on all sides.  As there is no proscenium in the theatre, and no masking for this production, the jungle extended all the way to the walls and ceiling of the space, instantly transporting the audience from the bustling island of Manhattan to the remote jungles of Costa Rica.

The two-person show follows the visit of 17-year-old Becky to her uncle Sterling’s house on the outskirts of the small town of Los Angeles, Costa Rica after she gets tangled up in a tragic accident at home in California.  Tensions are high at first, when talkative, “outgoing,” Becky drops in on her soft-spoken uncle’s quiet, reclusive lifestyle nine years after they last saw each other, but over the course of Becky’s week-long visit they both discover deep truths about themselves and what they’re ultimately hiding from.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Slowgirl.”  The script was both engaging as a story and though-provoking, the two actors were fantastic and endearing as distant relatives, and the production elements worked so seamlessly into the story that I forgot I was in a theater.  The only exception to that was a  jaw-dropping set transformation in the middle of the show … but I won’t spoil it for those that want to see it.  I’d highly recommend the show to anyone, especially those people (like me) that see way too many commercial Broadway musicals.  Do yourself (and new theatre artists a favor) and go see a refreshing new play while it’s still new and unknown – you’ll be glad you did!

By the time the show was over the sun had gone down over Manhattan and the theater’s facade lighting had come on, transforming the building into a softly glowing glass box.

Lincoln Center Theatre facade night light lighting LCT LCT3 "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

Roof Deck at Claire Town Theatre at Lincoln Center at Night

Lincoln Center Theatre facade night light lighting roof deck terrace LCT LCT3 "Claire Tow" "Avery Fisher Hall" "New York" NYC architecture

Out on the terrace, the view of the city had transformed as well, turning the city skyline into hundreds of tiny illuminated windows.  A performance at Avery Fisher Hall finished at the same time as us, so lines of patrons in suits and gowns could be seen strolling around each level of the glass building on the opposite side of the plaza as well.

It was so pleasant to be able to take my time leaving the theater, and to have a quiet space like the terrace to go to for reflection and conversation after the performance, instead of being dumped out into traffic on a busy midtown street like so many other Broadway houses.  There is a lot to be said for the need for “decompression space” in the design of a theater, whether it is a lobby, a bar, a garden, or other space.  Midtown theaters are too old and compact to be able to accommodate the appropriate amount of space, so the theater experience ends extremely abruptly, like an alarm clock startling you back into reality.  The experience leaving the Claire Tow Theater, on the other hand, was more like gradually waking up from a pleasant dream.

Lincoln Center Theatre theater facade plaza night light lighting LCT LCT3 "Metropolitan Opera House" "Vivian Beaumont" "Claire Tow" "New York" NYC architecture

Leaving the Lincoln Center campus through the main plaza, I took one last look at the Claire Tow theater from the main fountain in the plaza, the glowing glass box on the roof of the Beaumont once again just barely peeking over the trees in the plaza in front of it.  Reflecting on my experience, I realized that it was the best complete theater experience I have had in a long time (excluding shows that friends have worked on).  Admittedly, I don’t see as much New York theater as I should considering that I live here, but most experiences of this caliber don’t come at such an affordable price.

Like I said earlier, someone at Lincoln Center knows what they’re doing.  Creating a theatre experience that warmly invites new artists and audiences to the theatre isn’t just good for investors or donors, it’s good for the soul of American theatre.  Some things are just too important to be decided by money alone, like so many things are these days.  One of those things is the future of the performing arts in this country.  I am truly thankful to whoever came up with the idea for LCT3 and the Claire Tow Theater, because I believe your program is leaving behind a better world than existed before.

I am also thankful to the planners, designers, architects, and administration of the new Claire Tow Theater, for creating a theatre experience that is pleasant, relaxing, and refreshing.  From the moment I set foot on the Lincoln Center Plaza until the time I left it, my experience at the LCT3 was nothing but enjoyable.  The design of the building, the lobby, the theatre, the services, the graphics, the program … everything was great. The experience was like any great play; it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all three were in perfect balance.

Finally, I am thankful to the playwright, the director, the cast, and the production staff of “Slowgirl.”  Thank you, thank you, thank you, for taking a risk and telling a new story — it was very well done and thoroughly enjoyable.  I am a huge fan of new plays, having worked on several in college and been an audience member at several more, and I always enjoy them.  I find them to be so much more exciting than revivals, because they speak so much to the time we live in now.  They are important generators of discussion for topics that affect us today, so I fully appreciate and support your efforts.

The whole experience only makes me wish I could design more theaters, or design in them again.  It’s these types of projects that really make a city feel like a small town, like a community.  I’d love to be able to support initiatives and work like this with great lighting — to create great public experiences for everyone to enjoy.

Thank you again to everyone who made my experience possible — you have made living in New York that much better.  I’ll definitely be back to the Claire Tow Theater for more (and I’ll bring friends, too)!


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