The Show Triumphantly Goes on for Displaced Bowery Theater Groups

Josh Tyson as Tartuffe, chasing Elise Stone as Elmire.
Josh Tyson as Tartuffe, chasing Elise Stone as Elmire.
Josh Tyson as Tartuffe, chasing Elise Stone as Elmire.

The following article was written by David Mulkins of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.

While hyper-gentrification and the escalating destruction of our historic neighborhood shows no signs of slowing down, it’s comforting to learn that a few displaced businesses, residents and artists have been able to relocate, to keep going, and in some instances, to reach new heights. 

Such is the remarkable case of Craig Smith and Elise Stone, longtime residents who experienced the displacement of their theater company on the Bowery about a dozen years ago, and more recently have had to fight the big real estate firm that is aggressively trying to evict the couple, their 3 children and Elise’s mother from the family’s apartment on East Fifth Street.  

Actor-Director Craig Smith was a founding member of the award-winning Jean Cocteau Repertory Company, which staged challenging productions of classic plays and lesser known works by serious playwrights. Located inside the beautiful cast-iron former bank building turned Bouwerie Lane Theatre (330 Bowery), from 1974 to 2004, the company was one of the delights of off-off Broadway. 

330Bowery (1)

One of its great assets was the talented actress Elise Stone, who jointed the company in 1986.  Smith and Stone were married at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre on a Monday night (a theater dark night) in December of 1989.  Within a year of their displacement from 330 Bowery, Smith and Stone and other members of the company re-formed as the aptly named Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, which now performs at The Wild Project at 195 East Third St.

The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s terrific and timely new production of Moliere’s Tartuffe is hilarious and wildly creative, with brilliant staging by Smith and a deliciously electric cast that includes Stone in the role of the wife, Elmire.  It runs through Nov. 12.           
In a 2009 letter urging the Department of City Planning to protect the Bowery, Smith offered this poignant memory of his years on the Bowery:
…during intermissions on Sunday afternoons patrons from the Cocteau classical theatre, Amato Opera, and yes, from CBGB’s punk Sunday matinees would all congregate on the Bowery waiting for their second acts to begin — and I would think, “this is New York.” 
319Bowery - Amato Opera House

Which brings us to another survival story:  the Amato Opera Company, which disbanded in 2009, but reformed almost immediately as the Amore Opera.  The Amato, which was founded by Anthony and Sally Amato in 1948, and spent much of its 61 years at 319 Bowery, was a beloved local treasure which staged rousing productions of grand opera on a tiny stage in a tiny but charming 107-seat auditorium. After Tony was diagnosed with terminal cancer, his family sold the building, but the resilient opera company reformed as the similarly named Amore Opera.

Though they wanted to stay on the Bowery, circumstances led the company to the Connelly Theatre on Fourth Street, the Sheen Theatre on Bleecker Street, and to their current home at the Riverside Theatre in the basement of Riverside Church.  
Artistic Director Nathan Hull says that, despite its setbacks, the company is thriving; they perform 6 shows a year, and whereas the Amato used only a handful of musicians, the Amore now boasts a full 27-piece orchestra.  

Now celebrating its 9th year, if you add in the Amato years, the Amore can claim a remarkable 70 years.  Despite its success, Hull says he misses the neighborhood and would welcome a return to the Bowery area. 

While real estate-driven displacements continue to plague the creative community, it is comforting in the above two cases to see talent, strength, and fierce determination win the day and the show triumphantly go on.