The Playhouse, like most small theaters, had 49 seats. Fire inspectors informed the theater that they had a total occupancy of 49 and could only sell 49 tickets minus the number of cast, crew, ushers, etc.
"This precedent could have implications for larger spaces as well," said John Longenbaugh, artistic director of Theatre Babylon. "If a club has an occupancy of 200, they've probably been selling 200 tickets. Are they going to start doing math every night, subtracting the band, sound people, and bartenders?"
Lieutenant Ralph Siu, a compliance officer at the fire department who has been working with the Playhouse, said he understood occupancy to mean total number of the people in the building, whether factory, theater, or nightclub. "But I'm not 100 percent on that," he said. "It's up for interpretation and we're trying to come to a definitive answer."
Fringe theaters throughout the city say they're terrified that subtracting cast and crew from the number of tickets they can sell will have a disastrous effect on their already-narrow margins. That the 49-seat rule is in "interpretation" limbo makes them even more skittish.
The Playhouse's code saga began when the fire department shut down a production of Blasted and said the theater would have to be renovated. The Playhouse was in the midst of its capital campaign when this second inspection upped the required renovations to an astronomical price tag. Theatre Babylon, which had planned to open Influence this week, is searching for a new home.
"The fire department has really been trying to work with us," said Babylon associate artistic director Brad Cook. "We just outgrew the space--this is no fault of anybody's but our own success."
Nevertheless, the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if developers aren't instigating a crackdown to pry theaters out of buildings that could be put to more profitable use: the Union Playhouse shut down, JEM Arts in Georgetown killed by codes. Vulcan's new lease with Open Circle has shortened the required notice time to vacate the building from 90 days to 30 days, hinting they will reclaim the property soon. The city might consider lending these companies a hand.
There is a compelling municipal interest in helping artists maintain performance and gallery spaces. Artists and audiences blow fresh air into rundown neighborhoods, bringing business to cafes and shops, laying the economic groundwork for neighborhood growth. The city could do itself a favor by helping innovative arts organizations that can't afford architects and lawyers to find and keep their spaces.
Until then, expect more grim obituaries.