Jennifer Pluff wasn’t looking to get back on the theatrical merry-go-round. “It was never my intention to actually head this ship,” she said of her role operating the brand-new Playhouse 46, opening this week in the space once occupied by longtime venue St Luke’s Theater.
Pluff has been circling W46th Street for decades. Originally from Wisconsin, she started a nonprofit theater there where she quickly found herself “involved with pretty much every facet” of its operation. A new musical called Walmartopia, originally produced through Pluff’s company, brought her and the production to a spot in the New York International Fringe Festival in 2006 and a 2007 run at downtown’s Minetta Lane Theater.
As her theatrical management career took off, Pluff settled in the neighborhood, musing that she “was Jenny from the block on 43rd Street — I lived in Hell’s Kitchen for 10 years.” Pluff was taken with the lively nature of the area, embracing its community-oriented, convivial vibe. “I love the social energy that is always in this area, especially on 9th Avenue,” she said, adding that “I even met my husband at Dalton’s Bar and Grill right on 9th Avenue — so I consider myself Hell’s Kitchen and New York homegrown.”
She worked her way up through the ranks of New York’s theatrical production companies, eventually working as the general manager of several organizations and navigating the world of producing. After working with the Perry Street Theatricals to produce My Life Is a Musical at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Pluff began another ambitious production — raising twins. “I had to lay it to rest for a little bit,” she said. After spending some time away from theater, moving to Harlem and working as a kitchen and bath designer, Pluff found herself at the receiving end of a call from St Luke’s.
Pluff had long been affiliated with the church, having become a member during her years in Hell’s Kitchen: “St Luke’s church is my home — it’s where I got married, it’s where my children have been baptized.” After the church’s long-standing theatrical space closed during the onset of the pandemic, its staff recruited established industry professionals and members of the congregation to a planning committee, hoping to reinvent the beleaguered basement as an entirely new venue.
While Pluff hadn’t intended to lead such a massive project, “it became apparent that I was the best fit for it — and so I decided to come back to the industry that I know and love. And this time I’m doing it as a venue operator, which is so much easier…no, not really!” she laughed.
Pluff banded together with several longtime collaborators, including David Elliot of Perry Street Theatricals and The Cape Playhouse, professional actor and professor at Molloy College Chuck Ragsdale, Obie Award-winning playwright David Lally, hospitality and HR expert Adam Cornelius, and newcomer and graphic designer Tony Patryn to form a new board.
“We’re all pulling together to make this a really amazing, elevated space,” said Pluff. “And by going the nonprofit route, it makes for a very amicable environment within the church setting.”
Once the team was assembled, an even more daunting task began — converting the basement space of the nearly 100-year-old church building into an innovative, theater-in-the-round, performance venue. “It’s been over a year in the making,” said Pluff. “We hired a theatrical architect to come in and give us some configuration options. We played through a lot of different configurations and when it came down to it, for the off-Broadway business model we needed to accomplish, a 170-seat, round configuration is where we landed.”
After over a year of all-hands-on-deck work (where it wasn’t unusual to find Pluff and her team working all night to stencil on seat numbers), the space is ready for a live audience. The inaugural production is the “modern folktale” musical Islander, an exciting US premiere direct from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that tells the tale of one girl’s mythic, mysterious journey with the help of two talented performers and an innovative, live sound-mixed score.
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Pluff likens the process of discovering Islander to the rest of the theater’s serendipitous revival. “We were connected to the Islander team through Perry Street Theatricals. In talking us through the process of creating this theater in a very intimate, in-the-round theater space, they said, ‘Well, have we got a show for you!’ It was all a very fateful journey,” she said.
After the run of Islander, Pluff is happy to report “a bit of a queue” of new productions to take the stage at Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s. The theater is actively seeking shows that have “strong storytelling that celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, promotes social justice, uplifts the under-privileged, and comes from the heart”, and Pluff added, “before we even got this show off the ground there was quite a lot of interest in producing shows at our location in an intimate, in-the-round setting — there are lot of shows that lend themselves to that model, and they now have a home.”
Between the team’s reputations in the industry and the area, the playhouse is already well-established within the Hell’s Kitchen community. Pluff explained that the theater plans to continue building partnerships with local businesses to foster a neighborhood audience base. “When the Riu Hotel was first built, they rented our offices down in the basement of St Luke’s, where the theater space now sits. We have this really incredible relationship with them — we’ve helped them, they’ve helped us over the years. Now we’re hoping to give them a discount coupon, after-show tickets to go grab a drink, those kinds of things. We’re happy to already have these partnerships set up,” she said.
In addition to audience development, the team’s next goal is to continue the renovation of the theater space to be more ADA accessible. “Right now we’re in an old church basement. There’s no handicap accessible bathroom. There’s no handicap accessible entrance. We have a plan of how we can actually make it ADA compliant, and we’re working on a grant to secure the funding to get it done.”
Once they’ve finished the build out, Pluff hopes that Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s can become the first stop for new works produced in-the-round. “I would love to do a lot more immersive theatrical productions in-the-round,” she said. “I think the most underutilized Broadway house is Circle in the Square, and it’s because we are not utilizing this theatrical configuration to its potential. If we are able to build a homegrown venue here in New York that raises up this kind of theater, we can be the in-the-round baby sister that produces shows which move on to our big sister, Circle in the Square.”
For now, Pluff is relishing her unexpected return to the New York theatre scene and the city neighborhood she first called home. “It’s crazy how all of this has unfolded,” she reflected. “It’s so nice to be back where I can take meetings in the neighborhood or go to my favorite watering holes and grab a martini at Mama Mia 44 Southwest — and I’m now down the road from Joe Allen. I mean, hello!”
Check out Islander by Amy Draper, Stewart Melton, and Finn Anderson and starring Olivier Award-nominee Kirsty Findlay and Bethany Tennick at Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s beginning this week at 308 W46th Street between 8th and 9th Ave.