To walk by a beautiful brick church is not unusual in Hell’s Kitchen — but true to the neighborhood, many of these houses of worship are more than they seem. One such parish — St Clement’s Episcopal Church — is preparing to celebrate 60 years as a unique, Off-Broadway theater-church-community-hub hybrid where artistically-minded congregants have been known to attend Sunday services on set pieces, volunteer to provide food for local residents and attend boundary-pushing productions all under one roof.
The W46th Street church’s 60th anniversary celebration, taking place on November 12, will honor its singular history as both the city’s third-oldest Off-Broadway house and a continually active parish. In 1962, Reverend Sidney Lanier (a distant cousin of the late playwright Tennessee Williams) and well-known director Wynn Handman developed a 160-seat, Off-Broadway space known as The American Place Theatre in the church’s sanctuary.
St Clement’s quickly became a place where congregants could worship both at the altar of Dionysus and with their local bishop — a hotspot of new and exciting work, the church-theater would soon be known for premiering now-notable plays such as American Buffalo by David Mamet, Whiskey by Terrence McNally and La Tourista by Sam Shepard.
“They had this vision of church and theater working together creatively — which seems very idealistic, by our lights, 60 some-odd years later,” said Dan Wackerman, theater manager at St Clement’s and the artistic director of its resident Peccadillo Theater Company. “But it worked for a time, and they were successful for almost a decade.”
In that decade, The American Place Theatre at St Clement’s was at the forefront of the city’s growing Off-Broadway landscape, said Dan. “The Off Broadway theater movement began in two places — downtown at LaMaMa on E4th, and uptown at St Clement’s on W46th Street. Wynn worked with some of the biggest names in movies and in theater — Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway and many, many others,” said Dan, who added that Hoffman was discovered by The Graduate director Mike Nichols while starring in a show at St Clement’s.
After Handman moved operations to the space now known as the Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels a few blocks over, “the theater went through many, many transitions,” said Dan. Several companies, including the Pan-Asian Repertory Company, The New Group, and Red Bull Theater made their homes at St Clement’s throughout the intervening years. But by the early aughts, the once-vaunted venue was known more for its short-term community theater rentals than for its previous prestige, Dan told W42ST. When the Peccadillo Theater Company — founded by Dan and a company of fellow actors in 1994 to explore American classics — found themselves in need of a venue to move their successful 2005 production of Counsellor-At-Law (starring recent St Clement’s headliner John Rubinstein), they moved from the Westbeth in Greenwich Village to W46th Street.
“It ran for almost two months and won all the Off-Broadway awards that year,” said Dan — the production picked up a multitude of Obie and Lortel awards. “We got to know St Clement’s, and we had our eye on the space from that point on,” Dan added. He also got to know the church’s vicar, Mitties DeChamplain. “We hit it off really quickly,” said Dan. “She gave me a great deal of leeway with the space and we did a massive cleanup and restoration.” Working with local student volunteers to refurbish the theater-sanctuary, “we filled nine 40-cubic-yard industrial dumpsters, stripped the building down and really cleaned it up,” said Dan. “That was a new beginning for the space.”
Getting New York audiences back to calling St Clement’s the Off-Broadway giant it had once been “took a while,” he added. “I think it had sort of fallen off the radar for a lot of theater people — it hadn’t been the home of some of the brighter lights in the Off-Broadway theater community for a long time.” But after several successful productions, including 2009’s Zero Hour (starring the legendary Zero Mostel), a panel on HUAC-affected artists entitled Survivors of the Blacklist and a much-lauded 2011 production of the musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “the space really began to turn around,” said Dan.
More Hell’s Kitchen Nostalgia
As an artistic director, Dan appreciates the unorthodox relationship between his theater company and the church’s clergy, citing it as true to Lanier and Handman’s original vision. “I never have to vet a script here,” he said. “I never ask a potential rental, ‘Well, what’s the content of your project?’ Because [the clergy] have an understanding that the theater is what it is, and it’s good in and of itself, regardless of how risqué or cutting edge or vulgar it might be,” he added. “The congregation here is mostly made up of actors, theater people, musical theater people and cabaret artists. It is a small community, but they’re a very creative one. And St Clement’s has been in the forefront of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights – their history here is a very progressive one, and they’re not afraid of theater in any form. A few years ago we had Gary Busey starring in Only Human — and with Gary Busey involved, you know it was crazy!” he laughed.
The theater company has its eye on propelling its venue’s historic legacy even further, Dan said — adding that Peccadillo is deep in preparations for a star-studded industry reading of Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies on Old Dark Men starring Broadway’s Wendell Pierce, Kara Young and Daniel J Watts, among others. He hopes that the production will have a future life at St Clement’s and, possibly, beyond — reaffirming its legacy as an incubator for critically-acclaimed creative work supported by an active parish. “So many people are still unaware of the history of this space,” Dan added, “even having hosted Tony winners down the length of my arm!”
One staff member with a foot in both worlds is Seth Sibanda, director of the church’s food pantry and caretaker of the building. A former professional actor, Seth performed at the St Clement’s space in the 1980s, appearing in several shows depicting the apartheid government of his home country, South Africa. Performing in pieces about South Africa “gave me purpose as an artist,” said Seth, who returned to St Clement’s in 1999 to take over management of the church’s food pantry program. “It was a small operation,” Seth said, but it has since expanded to serve the greater Hell’s Kitchen community with weekly offerings, sourced with donations from City Harvest as well as state and federal funding.
The last few years have seen a significant increase in need, he added, with the lingering effects of COVID-19 and newly arrived migrants creating a greater level of food insecurity across the neighborhood. Despite the challenges of keeping operations running, it’s been fulfilling to establish long-standing relationships with clients, parishioners and performers through his work with the food pantry over the past two decades. “It’s been a blessing,” Seth said. “I feel like I’ve been doing something for the community to help people in need — and in terms of going forward in this difficult time, it sustains me.”
The community at St Clement’s has been a blessing for many, including Hell’s Kitchen resident Corey Brothers. When he moved to the neighborhood in 2000, he found an ad for St Clements “in the back of a gay nightclub magazine!” he laughed. After joining the church and finding meaning in its sermon-on-a-set services and progressive, artistic ethos, he volunteered to become the church warden. “I love the connection between the theater and the church,” Corey said. “It’s very much a part of the neighborhood and it attracts people of all different backgrounds and walks of life.”
He hopes that more New Yorkers will take notice and appreciate the church’s unusual arrangement, noting wryly that he often overhears audience members at the theater wonder if it’s OK to curse in the sanctuary. “We don’t care!” he laughed. “We were once the filming site for an episode of Sex and the City. We’re not stuffy!”
“It’s a very, very special place — and it’s a very unusual place,” added Dan. “We’re all under the same roof, and we all get along! It is really quite amazing how the theater helps the church, and the church has helped the theater.”