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Resurgence ushers in an era of uncertainty for Buffalo theaters

By mid-2013, when the Buffalo United Artists Theatre on Chippewa Street was reduced to a pile of rubble along with the rest of the Delaware Court Building to make way for the concrete parking garage that now stands in its place, the writing was on the wall:

The once-affordable performance spaces occupied by Buffalo’s many small and midsized theater companies could no longer be taken for granted in a “resurgent” Buffalo. In many places, from Chippewa to Allentown, they had accomplished their economic function of attracting development and could be dispensed with.

But BUA, like most passion-fueled cultural operations in Western New York, was resourceful. It set up shop a few blocks away in the Alleyway Theatre, where its presence has helped to bolster that organization’s waning programming and over the past season.

This natural cultural symbiosis is everywhere apparent in the city’s theatrical landscape this year, which is adapting to rising rents, development-driven displacement and the normal hiccups and challenges that are a way of life in the often thankless business of small-scale culture-making. With a few exceptions, the overriding feeling is one of anxiety and uncertainty.

As the theater community prepares to open another breathless season next week, here is a look at a few noteworthy developments:

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It’s been an extraordinarily busy summer for Road Less Traveled Productions, the theater company that was forced to leave its longtime home in the struggling Market Arcade Theatre and Arts Complex earlier this year. The city’s selection of an Amherst-based developer with plans to convert the space into a plush AMC Theatre left no space for Road Less Traveled, which found itself temporarily homeless for a stress-filled few months.

But it wasn’t long before a solution presented itself in the unexpected form of the Ellicott Development Company, whose recent acquisition of the former Forbes Theatre on Pearl Street provided just the opportunity the company and its executive and artistic director, Scott Behrend, were looking for. The company has big plans for the space, and apparently sees Road Less Traveled as an integral part of a coming mixed-use development in the building.

After a summer of intense work, Behrend and his nimble company have transformed the cavernous space into an intimate, 90-seat theater that aims to replicate the feel of its former Market Arcade home. The new space ignores the old stage and uses pipe and drape to create an entirely new modular setup with much more legroom for audiences and backstage space for actors. It will get its first test Friday, when the company opens the world premiere production of Bella Poynton’s play “Speed of Light.”

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No such clean-cut solution has yet arisen for Ujima Theatre Company, which performed its final show this spring in TheatreLoft on Elmwood Avenue, its home for more than three decades. The company’s pent-up frustrations with the building’s landlord came to a head in February, when a devastating roof leak forced it to relocate its production of “Topdog/Underdog” to Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

As a result of its new itinerant status, the company’s plans for the coming season are largely up in the air. But executive director Rahwa Ghirmatzion said it is charging ahead with plans for a roving production of “El-Hajj Malik,” a play about Malcolm X, to be performed in the fall at various locations including PUSH Buffalo’s Grant Street Neighborhood Center. The rest of its season will involve more small-scale, community-based theater projects, Ghirmatzion said.

There’s also some good news regarding a potential permanent space for the company in the offing, about which we can expect to learn more in the next month.

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American Repertory Theatre of Western New York, the company founded by Matthew LaChiusa, bid goodbye this past season to its basement space in the Church of the Ascension on Linwood Avenue, which is being converted into senior housing. As LaChiusa suggested in a phone interview, any space within spitting distance of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is unsafe from the plans of developers looking to cash in on Buffalo’s biomedical reboot by converting disused spaces into condos and apartments.

Less than a week ahead of its opening, the company finalized plans to perform its season-opening production of “Carrie: The Musical” at Medaille College through an agreement with Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions, which is taking the first half of the season off. The arrangement isn’t likely to be permanent, as is often the case for companies of ART’s small size and resources.

Despite these challenges, LaChiusa remained optimistic about the company’s future.

“It’s part of our company policy to keep things on the move, as it’s harder to hit a moving target,” he said.

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Second Generation Theatre, the young company for young theater fans that launched in 2012, is decamping from its incubator in the New Phoenix Theatre and setting up shop in the Lancaster Opera House. Given that venue’s jam-packed schedule and the company’s need to retool itself for the move, it is taking the first half of the season off and launching with a production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in January 2016.

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Sometimes the normal vagaries of life, rather than economic ones, can throw a bit of a wrench into high-effort cultural enterprises. That’s the case for at least two local companies. Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions is hitting pause on the first half of its season, and, according to its website, will be back with a musical in February. And Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre, which has breathed new life into an old form since its relaunch in 2009, is taking a break as the venue moves from its home in Lancaster to Como Park Boulevard in Cheektowaga.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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