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A Stagewarming

Theater: The Play Group Theatre finds a place to call home

By Peter D. Kramer
The Journal News
Dec. 26, 2009

At the 10-year anniversary gala for The Play Group Theatre in 2005, executive director Steven Abusch got up and told those assembled about a deal he had struck with the city of New Rochelle that would land the youth theater in a permanent home, at Wildcliff Center, on Long Island Sound.

That plan never made it off paper.

On Jan. 2, at PGT’s 15-year anniversary gala, Abusch will invite the crowd gathered at White Plains Performing Arts Center to cross Main Street to White Plains Plaza, at 1 North Broadway to cut the ribbon on the group’s new permanent home.

This plan is off paper and into paint, tile, carpet, seats and stages: PGT has a new, 20,000-square-foot home.

“It’s life-changing,” says Jill Abusch, Steven’s wife and the artistic director and co-founder of PGT. (They met at the Suffolk Y on Long Island doing “Guys and Dolls.” Jill was Adelaide; Steven was Benny Southstreet.) “We’re pinching ourselves.”

Old-timers might remember 1 North Broadway as the address of the one-screen UA Cinema from the ‘70s (in the age before multiplexes) and, more recently, as the home of New York Sports Club.

“The kids have nicknamed it ‘No Bro,’” Jill says with an irrepressible smile.

For years, the youth theater has been in the bowels of a strip mall at 200 Hamilton Ave., a stone’s throw from “No Bro.”

“Life is all different on this side of Hamilton Avenue,” Jill says. &8220;The view is completely different from here.”

For one thing, there is a view. their current home is windowless.

The new venue is a youth theater dream: A 228-seat main-stage theater, a 60-seat studio-stage space, dressing rooms, lockers (left over from the sports club days), a complete scene shop, costume storage, a props “dungeon” on the floor of the original movie house, and plenty of rehearsal rooms.

It has been a long time coming.

For years, PGT has been a moveable feast, hopscotching across Westchester, from New Rochelle’s Public Library to the Wildcliff Center, the Emelin Theatre, Irvington Town Hall Theatre, Purchase College and even their new neighbor, the White Plains Performing Arts Center, which will host the gala as the finishing touches are put on the new home at “No Bro.”

The gala program will include a look back over 15 years of productions, with alumni re-creating performances from the group’s first show — “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” — through to the latest, next month’s “Seussical” and “13.”

Steven says the owners of the property, Heyman Properties, “are community minded” and responded favorably when PGT approached them with a plan.

PGT got the space as-is and had to raise the money to turn it into a theater. Plenty of equity are making the venue a reality.

First, a successful yet brief capital campaign raised more than $500,000 in six months for Phase 1 of the plan, turning empty space into rooms and theaters, a lobby and offices, Steven says.

Jill adds: “The capital campaign has only spanned a few months, (but) it has been a culmination of 15 years of support from parents, friends, members of the board of trustees and even some of the students themselves.”

Phase 2 will focus on the main-stage Theater and will require another $500,000 she estimates. For those funds, PGT will cast its net wider including the possibility of selling naming rights for the new main-stage.

PGT volunteers are doing all the painting themselves. They found seats on eBay, torn out of a Florida school and priced right at $16 a seat, plus shipping.

In a matter of days, theatergoers will be in those seats: Associate artistic director Jeff Downing directs “Seussical” with a cast from 7 to 17, on the main stage Jan. 9, 10, 23 and 24. Jill Abusch directs Jason Robert Brown’s “13,” Jan. 16, 17, 18, 30 and 31.

Then, says, Steven, watch them go.

“We average 12 performance projects a year,” Steven says. “The performance spaces that were available to us are shrinking and shrinking.”

Unlike most youth theaters in the Lower Hudson Valley, PGT alternates plays and musicals.

It’s not all “Annie” all the time. Past productions include: “Hair,” “Marvin’s Room,” “A Man of No Importance,” “The Laramie Project,” “Chess” and “Lord of the Flies.”

“Our goal is to make sure that our students have a broad range of experiences in the theater and exposure to different playwrights and composers and styles.” Jill says. “We look for the next challenge.”

And unlike other groups, where kids vote with their feet and register once they know what musical they’ll be doing, PGT keeps their projects a secret until after the initial auditions.

“They don’t necessarily know what’s out there,” Jill explains. “And they don’t necessarily know the difference between what they want to do and what’s right for them to do, what fits them.”

This approach means PGT seeks the performance rights to several shows and narrows it down once they’ve seen the pool of registrants. A strong middle-school contingent made “13” — the story of a Manhattan boy transplanted to the rural Midwest — a natural fit for January.

With a permanent home and a reasonable rent, “No Bro” will be a beehive of activity, with rehearsals and performances and even the opportunity for other community events to be held there.

“It’s a great space for lectures,” Steven says.

“Our organization wouldn’t exist without the open arms of other venues who have taken us in for our performance projects,” he says. “I would love to be in the position to do the same for others.”

By the time the group’s 20th anniversary gala rolls around, PGT hopes to offer design and technical classes, and to get into the White Plains schools with theater for young audiences programs.

It has been an 8-year search for a permanent home, with promises raised and dashed again and again.

“We made it through every heartbreak along the way,” Jill says. “Every space met some needs and not others. This checks every box. We’ve got room to grow. We’re close to the train for our commuting staff. We don’t have to leave White Plains.”

“I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else,” Steven says.

The Play Group Theatre is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization made possible in part by generous donors like you. Thank you for your support!