Step Inside the Renovation of Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s with General Manager, Jennifer Pluff
From 1995 to 2020, St. Luke’s Theater has been a staple of the Off-Broadway scene, home to many notable productions, including: Tony and Tina’s wedding, late-night catechism, disaster! The musical, FRIENDS! The musical parody, Sistas the musical, and more.
After weathering the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the venue is back in full swing as Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s and sports exciting new renovations! During the closure, with the support of the parish community, the space was renovated and upgraded to a 170-seat Off-Broadway theater in the round.
The nearly $200,000 project upgraded every area of the space, from state-of-the-art wired LED lighting to the arena’s new seating configuration, new chairs, a new control booth, upgraded locker rooms. day, bathrooms, shower, washer/dryer hook. -up, offices/green room, ticket office and two LED backlit planters for storefront art.
Along with widespread upgrades to their facilities, the company recently launched its first production in space, the acclaimed new musical Islander, imported from the UK! Enter the new space and get all the details on this massive project in our chat with Jennifer here!
When did you all make the decision to embark on this colossal project? What was the planning process like?
The church decided to create a committee and they took people from the congregation who were in the industry. I was on the committee and we decided it was time to elevate the space. We needed to insulate. The most important thing was to make sure we had some sort of noise barrier between the sanctuary above and the theater below, so that we didn’t have having a lot of sound lost so we can actually do things simultaneously. This has always been the problem in the past. So that was the first and most important issue, and then it came down to everything to make it clean and functional. The offices have been completely renovated and remodeled, new emergency exits, new flooring, new kitchen, new green room. Then we decided, as a committee, to hire a theater architect. We therefore contacted ARUP and they are the ones who set up certain configurations of the space.
How did you choose the seats for the arena and what is the benefit of this arrangement for the space?
One advantage is the lines of sight. It’s a basement so we don’t have high ceilings. You can’t get much elevation for the seats. So to have the traditional proscenium or even a small push stage, you would have to have that height. So the idea was how to set up the space, knowing that we have height restrictions and knowing that we want to fit as many bodies there as possible for the off-Broadway business model. We went through all the different setups and landed on the arena set because we could seat 172 people. Before the renovation it was 135 or something.
Looks like you really optimized the space.
It makes a huge difference. The technical cabin was completely invisible. I mean, there was no way anyone sitting in the tech booth where it was built in the back corner of the space could actually be functional and see everything that was happening on stage to call the show. So we had to organize that in a different place as well. And then, in doing so, we wired everything up for the LEDs as well. We are therefore at the forefront of technology in this sense. But again, we were also thinking about the comfort, not only of the actors, but of the bosses. In a small, low-ceilinged space with LED lighting [the temperature] it’s gonna be cooler. So we also wanted to make sure it would be a comfortable space in that regard.
The space itself then lent itself to the arena, but the other thing that was the biggest factor in hiring the architect is that we are still a working soup kitchen.
I hadn’t seen it coming. [laughs]
[laughs] Thus, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., the church still has and will have still have, the soup kitchen mission that has long existed in Midtown. It is one of the few to offer hot meals. It’s sitting down, having a hot, home-cooked meal, every day. We had to design something that could then convert. So the second row of seats retracts into the riser behind it to expand the open space so that we now have walk-through space for soup kitchen customers. We have tables that will be there with chairs, and so they can come in, we have a buffet line, and they come in and sit down, they come out the other way. It’s just like we’ve always done for years and years and years. So we knew we had to keep the same soup kitchen model. Behind an entire section of seating is an open kitchen and that’s where all the food is prepared and that’s how we kind of applied it to the theater. So it’s a soup kitchen that turns into a theater instead of a theater that turns into a soup kitchen.
It looks like a really well thought out project.
The only downside to this renovation that we haven’t figured out yet and will need more money to do so…I hope we establish ourselves as a non-profit organization that we can apply for grants and, hopefully getting some money to make us more accessible to the ADA. It’s the biggest unfortunate setback of being like a century old building, we don’t have that accessibility, there are stairs up and stairs down. Even the bathrooms are not wide enough to be handicapped accessible. So we have a plan for how this could work and it would also benefit our soup kitchen. We would have to renovate there to accommodate a handicap accessible bathroom in the space. So we have these goals and these plans for, you know, five years, ten years.
It’s amazing that you have accomplished this in such a precarious time for the theater. How did you find the funding for this project?
Pastor Arden Strasser of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church was most instrumental in this regard. I mean, the church put in place and the congregation put that money in to make it happen. This is also not the right time to be part of a church. So they are literally taking money out of coffers when a lot of people can’t go to church and can’t give.
Talk about a leap of faith!
It is exactly what it is. Yeah. It’s such a leap. I’m amazed, amazed every day throughout this process that we’ve come to this. I mean we’re out of money [laughs] but we have come to this!
You present the new musical, Islander, which was a big hit in the UK. How How’s it going ? What are your hopes for the future?
It was really awesome and the show is perfect for our space. I mean, it couldn’t be more perfect in terms of the mission of what we wanted to do at Playhouse 46, in terms of bringing shows from the heart together. We really want to cultivate something that has to be progressive, that reflects the congregation of St Luke’s Lutheran Church. It is therefore very important for us to highlight LGBTQ+ issues, social justice topics and relationships with those less fortunate. I mean, that’s what our message is. We want to provide help and help and have this social mission.
Yeah. Well, it’s definitely in its DNA, right down to the custom built-in soup kitchen!
Learn more about Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s and the new musical, Islander, here.