New Paltz public weigh in on theatre proposal

Pictured is the proposed site for the black box Denizen Theater. The site is located just north and adjacent to the upper parking lot at Water Street Market. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Harry Lipstein believes his idea to build a black-box theater in the Village of New Paltz has ample support, but decades after creating Water Street Market, he’s still not sure how to get those folks to show up on a Tuesday night. Despite what he says are people frequently stopping him on the street to tell him how much they support the idea of live theater in the village, suggesting to him that most residents would like to see the project through, about half the people who testified at the public hearing when it was opened last week were near neighbors who are concerned about traffic, noise, and parking impacts.

Such is his passion for live theater that even though these are still open questions, Lipstein would rather talk about the vision than focus on those issues of congestion, which are the same ones raised for any larger project. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have answers; Lipstein’s architect, Richard Miller, has been working hard to demonstrate that the impact of even a sellout show of 70 tickets — the maximum number of seats in what’s now being called the Denizen Theater — would easily be absorbed into neighboring Water Street Market, which he still owns. There won’t be any patrons parking their cars on Wurts Avenue, he says, because there’s enough spots at the market. In addition, Rock & Snow owner Rich Gottlieb has offered to lease Lipstein his 12 spaces at a dollar a year, just to make sure.

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With productions that will feature no more than four cast members and no live music, each show is likely to be fairly quiet. That the theater will be “a bunker,” built mostly into the hill at 12 Main Street, should additionally quell the potential for noise. Lipstein notes that the free movies offered at Water Street Market draw more than 200 attendees without generating noise complaints or parking issues. Most people for those arrive on foot, he said, which is exactly what he thinks will happen at the Denizen: theatergoers who don’t park at Water Street will find nearby municipal spots, and leave the car behind as they dine before or after the show.

Lipstein said he would have been surprised if no one had anything negative to say, but he’s worried that the many folks who tell him they are excited about the village getting this cultural hub just aren’t preaching to the right people, which would be those on the village planning board. He asserts the list includes professionals intrigued by the jobs which would be created, students eager for opportunities for exposure and education alike, and many other local residents who wish New Paltz was actually the artsy community it’s sometimes portrayed as in magazines and through social media.

“There are artists all over the Hudson Valley, but in New Paltz it’s never been fully expressed,” he said. “This will be a catalyst.”

Ben Williamson will join Lipstein as part of a tight team focused on how the Denizen might be just that. Many people have never experienced live theater in the intimate way being proposed here, he says, and he’s eager to demonstrate that “the theater’s for everybody.” Williamson has spent his time talking with SUNY theater professors about how to work together, and learning just how many talented actors there are living nearby, who would jump at the chance to be part of one of the expected five shows per year. Each would run about five weeks, according to Lipstein.

Williamson’s voice fills with emotion when he talks about the deep bench of talented playwrights whose original works of “brave, honest storytelling” could be produced at the Denizen. Lipstein himself wants shows that are made for this kind of intimate setting, where audience members can see each others’ faces across the way as they are incorporated wholly into an immersive theatrical experience.

That vision is dependent on support by residents, Lipstein believes. He does not expect many tickets to be sold to people from far away; he considers this a gift to the community, and it will be local community members who enjoy it. Those same community members are the ones who tell him in conversation that they support his efforts. He hopes that if they are unable to attend the next session of the public hearing, held by the New Paltz Village Planning Board on September 5, 7 p.m., at village hall, that they will e-mail comments to planning board members.

Lipstein said that what worries him is not the possibility that no one in New Paltz wants this theater. A clear rejection would just mean he withdraws the plans and focuses on other projects. He’s convinced people do want the Denizen, but he fears that they won’t tell planning board members what they’re telling him. For or against, he’s hoping a lot more people will show up and let planning board members have a clear sense of where the community as a whole stands.

There is one comment

  1. Upstate Guy

    I can assure residents, as someone who has previously lived in a downtown area across from a ‘black box’ theatre that noise is never an issue. The entire construct of a ‘black box’ theatre is its interior – self contained design. Once you’re inside, you’re inside and it all stays in there. As for parking if the town can approve the new Boutique Hotel / Residential project up the street we’ll have several hundred new parking spaces available to the public – which would almost always happen in the evening / at night / when downtown traffic and parking is not as busy. It can work. Let’s not get caught up in the imaginary traps.

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