It was one of those confusing moments, when people try to figure out whether something is really going wrong, or if it’s part of the show.
As it turned out, something was really going wrong.
The performance of “The Rain Dogs Project” was just getting underway last Friday night at 44 17th St. when the lights came on. Matthew LaChiusa, founder of the American Repertory Theatre of WNY, walked out and told the audience that the show was over.
City fire marshals had closed down the production, LaChiusa said.
Everyone had to leave.
While the baffled and disappointed audience members, perhaps two dozen people, gathered up their coats and bags, a uniformed officer snapped photos of them.
Asked what brought them to 44 17th Street after 8 p.m., Buffalo Fire Prevention Chief Mark A. Morganti said his office discovered on social media that ART was putting on a performance in a building that was not permitted for public assembly. A former stable, it is now designated as warehouse and storage space.
“We are being targeted,” LaChiusa said. “The City of Buffalo is targeting a small theater company, for some reason they are trying to shut us down.”
He resented that a performance by his small theater, operating on a shoestring budget, was being busted by officers carrying sidearms, as if he was packing a warehouse for a rave.
Morganti acknowledged his office had been on the lookout for ART’s performances, but said in a response to questions from The News that he had good reason.
Morganti said there have been problems with ART venues “for many years.”
He said the first code compliance issue he had with the company happened about three years ago, in an old church's basement on Linwood at North Street, when complaints were received that there weren’t proper exits. He pointed out that the show was not shut down.
“In good faith we worked with Mr. LaChiusa and helped get the space to a point that met the minimum requirements and allowed the performances to continue to the end.”
ART decided to relocate anyway. Performances for the last two and a half years have been at 330 Amherst St., in a small building adjacent to the Sportsmen’s Tavern. The theater company was still there in March, when it found it had a hit on its hands with “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
But the sold-out shows brought more attention.
“Someone came one night and couldn’t get a ticket,” said Candice Kogut, ART’s artistic director.
There was a fuss, she said, with the turned-away patron wondering if the space was even legal.
On March 23, according to Morganti, his office received a complaint that a theater company was putting on shows at 330 Amherst St., “and that the building did not have proper exiting.”
Theatergoers would enter up two wooden steps that led to a tiny foyer and ticket window, adjacent to wooden risers holding seats for perhaps four dozen people. It would fit anyone’s definition of “funky,” and with tickets in the $15 to $20 range, the company seemed to relish taking theatrical chances, even though that could mean small audiences.
“Superstar” was different. A well-known and popular musical with a large local cast bringing in family and friends, the show was just about sold out before it started. There were six performances left when the fire safety office was called in.
This time, Kogut said, the city didn’t work with them to meet the minimum requirements. Instead, she said, the theater was charged $100 an hour – $300 a night – to have a city fire marshal on site for each of the remaining performances.
For the theater, it felt like pay-to-play.
Morganti said it was a compromise to allow the show, once again, to go on.
The building was permitted for public use, he said, and had only one legal exit that had stairs (two steps) with no railing. The building’s second exit was inaccessible because it was blocked by the stage. “Lighting was by extension cords. Heating was by an outdoor patio heater (and) not properly vented.”
He said that he and Tom Brodfuehrer, a chief building inspector, considered the building to be unsafe and wanted to shut down the space but, so the performances could continue, they instead put a “fire watch” in place.
As for the $100 an hour, he said the money is billed through the Fire Department and “is based on what it cost the city for one of our members to be there.”
According to Morganti, LaChiusa met with his office after “Superstar” finished its run and was told what was needed to make 330 Amherst St. legal for theater. He also said that he told him the inspectors would check any future venues for compliance before the theater company leased them.
Faced with changing the Amherst Street site so that it would be both compliant and suitable as a theater venue, ART chose instead to move.
LaChiusa said he did not call the fire safety inspectors because he believed the building already was approved. It was being used as a photo studio and other groups had held short-run performances there. He said he had no reason to believe it was not compliant.
So, when the second performance of “The Rain Dogs Project” was shut down last Friday, LaChiusa and the ART performers who were forced to leave made it clear they felt singled out.
Morganti defends his timing, saying that, in the six weeks between the two shows, “We reached out to Mr. LaChiusa a couple of times to see how he was progressing, with no response.”
He said an officer did an internet search and saw the company was performing at 44 17th St. A check of city records showed the building was not officially approved for public assembly, and by that point he decided to personally investigate, accompanied by two arson investigators.
“I found many code violations and decided to shut the performance down and evacuate the theater,” he said.
The show did not go on as scheduled the next night, either, but the company has rallied, with the help of the local theater community.
“The Rain Dogs Project” is inspired by the music of Tom Waits, the man who fittingly said, “Well, for a brief time, I think everybody’s lived in a car.”
“Rain Dogs” has a new theater. Friday night, it will continue an abbreviated run in the Alleyway Theatre’s Main Street Cabaret.