Curtains: Jackson Heights’ Robert Lyons bids farwell to his beloved Ohio Theater with its final Ice Factory Festival

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The Ohio Theatre is closing for good at the end of August. Robert Lyons, the artistic director of its resident company, SoHo Think Tank, and a Jackson Heights resident, is unhappy.

“When they kick us out, they’re going to renovate and then get a high-end retail tenant,” he said. “Just what SoHo doesn’t need — another sunglass store! This is what they’re interested in. It’s been in the works for a couple of years, so we’ve passed through the stages of grief already. We’re trying to get towards acceptance. That’s our state of mind.”

The Ohio is a big, beautiful theater with the feel of a warehouse. The building is about 100 years old and has been a theater for 29 years and the home of the SoHo Think Tank and its Ice Factory Festival for 17. “Before SoHo was SoHo, I like to think of it,” Lyons said. “So it’s a shame.”

The festival is called The Ice Factory because when it began there was no air conditioning in the space.

“I’ve been in theater since 1988 with two different companies,” Lyons said. “It’s been quite an amazing run. We’ve had so many important theater artists come through the space: Tony Kushner at the beginning of his career; Philip Seymour Hoffman made his debut out of college; Eve Ensler, 10 years before “The Vagina Monologues”; Ann Bogart; Robert Woodruff. It’s quite an important place for artists who are just finding their voice. Not that it’s made any difference to the landlords. But they’re real-estate developers.”

He takes comfort in the fact that politicians, community boards and city councilmembers are beginning to recognize that shutting New York theaters is not a good idea. “As theaters close, the city loses part of its identity,” he says. “I think that consciousness is rising, but not in time to save the Ohio Theatre.”

Lyons, who used to live in Manhattan, now lives in Hampton Courts in Jackson Heights. “I love our apartment! We have a big apartment with lots of light,” he said. “It was built around 1920, with a lot of beautiful detail and an interior garden in the back. It’s gorgeous. It’s different than Manhattan, but that’s okay. There’s a lot of space.”

He enjoys the neighborhood, which he’s just beginning to explore, and is glad that artists are now discovering Queens the way they discovered Greenwich Village and downtown Brooklyn. He likes to write in Espresso 77, a neighborhood café, enjoys his visits to a wine store on 37th Avenue called Table Wines and is awed by the eye-popping abundance of the Pacific Grocery across the street from the 74th Street and Broadway subway station.

He was born in Detroit and went to college at Michigan State, but after graduation lived in Boston, Philadelphia, and London before he came to New York. He was in Cape Ann, Mass., when he saw a theater piece performed in a bar, and hung out with the actors afterwards. “I decided to write a short play and it took off from here,” he said. “I never thought about the theater as a kid or even in college. I was a writer, but not for theater.”

When he came to New York he met the Ohio’s owner, the architect William Hahn, who’s now 91. No one was running the theater for him so Lyons volunteered. Hahn, by the way, wasn’t happy about selling the space either, but the upkeep was just too much for him, Lyons said.

“He’s an unsung hero,” Lyons said.

Lyons has the Ice Factory Festival down to a ritual with his associate Vanessa Sparling and a crew of eager interns helping to whittle down more than 100 submitted plays to six. “I’m looking for originality,” Lyons says. He also checks out theater companies for fresh and exciting work. The Festival won an Obie in 2003 for Sustained Excellence and the Obies honored the Ohio Theatre with a special citation for its “outstanding contribution to the New York theater scene.”

The last play of the festival will be Lyons’ own “Nostradamus Predicts The Death of SoHo,” which isn’t about the current crisis at the Ohio. After the festival closes the company will throw the Last Chance Dance, which will mark the closing of the theater.

Though the community is saddened by the end of the theater, they’re supportive of the company, which is looking for a new space to take up residence in.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Lyons said. “The life of the theater is such a rich life.”

Ice Factory 2010 will run through Aug. 14 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St. in Manhattan. For more information, visit

Updated 6:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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