I’ve always felt that historic preservation has little to do with physical spaces but the character of those spaces and the goals of the individuals and communities that inhabit them. When it comes to creative spaces, this particularly holds true. That’s why misguided efforts to protest NYU’s recent revamping of the historic Provincetown Playhouse not only undermine the creativity of students and professors who use it, but fail to even understand the true nature of creativity.
Preservation of creative spaces has little to do with walls, seats and windows and has a lot to do with the community that nurtures those who are doing the creating. It is in this sense that NYU’s effort is a valiant one. In the case of the Provincetown, the school has not only done a fantastic job at creating an aesthetically pleasing space for students to showcase their talents, but also at preserving the original and long-standing mission of the Provincetown as a home for groundbreaking theatre.
Still, as the newly renovated Provincetown reopens, there has been no shortage of extreme criticism by preservationalists who seem to value some of the less significant details of the building itself, rather than the work that can finally be done there again.
From the New York Times:
“It shouldn’t be called the Provincetown Playhouse,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, an advocacy group. “I actually find it offensive. They are attempting to trade on the cultural capital of the name after destroying the historic artifact.”
Except that the cultural artifact hasn’t been destroyed at all. Eighty-five percent of the original walls have been kept, with the only changes coming because the remaining wall was structurally unsound. The seats that were replaced by NYU were not original to the theater and the seat ends that are the subject of contention for Mr. Bankoff and others have been preserved and will be on display in the facility, albeit not in their original spaces.
There is a delicate balance that NYU had to maintain when revamping the theater. While preserving the heritage of the space itself, the school also had to build a space that holds true to the tenets of 21st century experimental theatre. Like our city, theatre is not a stagnant being. Theatre, like the buildings in New York City in which it is presented, is living and breathing, changing as the years do. What makes both timeless is our ability to never replace the past with the present, but to use the past as the foundation for the future, which is exactly what NYU has done here.
This renders the argument over seat ends and the walls of the Provincetown even less relevant. The work is done, and the Provincetown is now open so that a new generation of playwrights can build on the work of the Provincetown Players and become the true preservers of the Playhouse.