New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater will move out of its longtime headquarters and embrace itinerancy as the company seeks a fresh start after a period of extraordinary upheaval.
The non-profit theater’s leadership is describing the move as an opportunity to reach new audiences, reimagine its operations and increase its effectiveness. The city is supporting the change which it says will better serve the community.
This is the latest chapter of a period of significant change at the theater. It fired its executive director Gordon Edelstein in 2018, just a day after The. New York TimesSeveral women have made allegations of sexual misconduct against him. As the company rebuilt itself, it was faced with a real estate dilemma: whether it should renew its expired lease at New Haven Food Terminal. It is located just off Interstate 95 and has been performing for 57 year.
The theater, which has been among the nation’s leading regional nonprofits, also faces the same challenges as its peers: demonstrating to patrons, artists and donors that it can move forward following the lengthy pandemic shutdown, and that it is committed to shifting priorities in response to industrywide calls for more diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Long Wharf Theater has an incredible legacy, and it’s had some complicated challenges,” said Jacob G. Padrón, the theater’s artistic director. “The next several years will be about discovery.”
The theater’s leaders said they could have chosen to renew its lease when it expires in June, but that they opted not to, both because the theater was spending too much money on rent and upkeep, and because its location, once treasured for free parking and easy highway access that appealed to suburbanites, was inconvenient for some New Haven residents and difficult to access via public transit.
The theater, which initially considered the location at the industrial waterfront to be temporary when it opened there in 65, has previously thought about moving. It had announced plans to move to New Haven in 2004, but due to the worsening economy, it decided to renovate its Food Terminal location instead.
Padrón said he views the decision to relocate to a variety of yet-to-be-determined spaces around New Haven as a way of rethinking “how a regional theater makes its art,” and a way to “expand our imagination of how a theater can show up for its community.”
“It’s exciting to think about what’s the project, and what’s then the right container for that project,” he said.
The theater’s leadership, including not only Padrón but also the managing director, Kit Ingui, and the board chairwoman, Nancy Alexander, all said that they believe the institution is financially stable, and that it would benefit from the flexibility of its next phase. The new arrangement will not only reduce costs but also allow for greater reach to audiences that are not able to travel to the waterfront area from which the theater gets its name.
“There’s no sense that we’re hanging on by a thread or that we have to live on a shoestring,” Alexander said. “We have been blessed with some longtime givers who have created a strong endowment for us, and we are projecting budgets that will work.”
Long Wharf plans to stage at least two more shows at its current location — a new play called “Dream Hou$e,” by Eliana Pipes, which the theater describes as being about “the cultural cost of progress in America,” and “Queen,” by Madhuri Shekar, about “brilliant women confronting inconvenient truths.” The theater is still talking with its landlord about whether it might continue producing in the building later this year, but by the fall of 2023 the leadership expects to present full productions at other locations in and around New Haven — possibly in rented theaters, and possibly in spaces not traditionally used for theater.
“We believe you can produce theater anywhere,” Ingui said.
Long Wharf won the Tony Award for Regional Theater in 1978. It survived the pandemic with substantial support from the federal, state, and local governments. Its staff is less than half the size it was — about 30, down from 65 before the pandemic; the annual budget, which had been about $6.5 million before the pandemic, is now a little over $5 million.
The theater’s leaders said they have not yet decided whether they will remain itinerant long-term,…