Downtown Drama

A historian, a chamber of commerce director, two social service providers, an environmentalist and a communications consultant sit down at a table.

Sounds like the beginning of a very tedious joke, but at the Albany Roundtable luncheon on Wednesday, that was just one table out of 10.

Somehow, the discussion turned to the arbitrary municipal lines dividing communities in the Capital Region and the very physical separation provided by the Hudson River. (I personally think of the Hudson as not just the border between Albany and Rensselaer counties, but the start of New England.)

The luncheon speakers were Proctors CEO Philip Morris and Capital Rep Producing Artistic Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, who were invited to discuss their ongoing collaboration.

Unexpectedly, Morris began his presentation by comparing the Capital Region with some of the other big upstate metropolitan areas – like Buffalo and Rochester. He noted that most people don’t think of the Capital Region as urban because it seems like “we live in a suburb surrounded by cities.” He then did some fancy math to show that the average population density of the Capital Region is actually slightly greater than Buffalo, and Rochester, AND Syracuse.

What we lack, however, is a cooperative regional identity. As our table was discussing before the presentation, for some, the concept of going from Albany’s Center Square to the Troy Music Hall is almost as daunting as embarking on the Oregon Trail.

As Morris put it:

“We live in a place where once the rivers linked us together, but now the rivers divide us.”

He urged Capital Region residents to stop competing with one another and instead to begin working together to compete with Buffalo, or Rochester, or Syracuse – “because we would badly abuse our resources by duplicating all kinds of services. Two Proctors would be a disaster. Two Cap Reps would be a disaster.”

That’s where the Proctors Collaborative comes in; it aims to create what Morris called a “cultural connector across this vast suburb,” adding: “Because if you live in Clifton Park, you can go anywhere.”

Founded in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, Proctors and Capital Repertory Theatre (or theREP, now an affiliate of the Proctors Collaborative) have provided the very best in entertainment to the region for decades. They’re joining forces to serve as an anchor in the development of Livingston Square, the former National Biscuit Co. building, at 251 N. Pearl Street, which will include a 300-seat MainStage, 70-seat black box theatre, full time café and box office.

Together, they’ll expand their mission to deliver programming that Morris termed both “hyper-local and hyper-regional.”

Mancinelli-Cahill then took to the podium with an overview of the Livingston Square project. Though just 3 blocks from the current location of Cap Rep at 111 North Pearl Street, she said news of the move was like an “earthquake among our subscribers.” She expanded on the (arbitrary) dividing lines between Downtown, Arbor Hill and Albany’s burgeoning Warehouse District, and used a birds-eye view map to illustrate the new location’s proximity to the old.

The Albany Distilling Company is adjacent to the new location, with a garden where one can imbibe al fresco, and Death Wish Coffee may be moving to the block as well. Mancinelli-Cahill earned a laugh by saying “her life would be made” if that happened. The plan also includes new construction of six stories of artist housing, with one floor reserved for Cap Rep talent.

She acknowledged that Cap Rep is “going to change the neighborhood, a little bit, by being there,” adding: “The roadmap for this change includes equality, diversity and inclusion through education…Education is what gets young people into our world and gets us into other peoples’ worlds.”

Efforts already underway include a Young Playwrights Contest, Teenage Acting Ensemble in the summertime, professional apprenticeships for recent college graduates, and teaching artists visiting Arbor Hill Elementary School for an after-school drama program. According to Mancinelli-Cahill, “We are going to continue making theater that looks like the real America, not some made-up notion of America.”

Future outreach will include Literary Corners where young people can have a book exchange, and PB&J Theatre, where kids can come in and have lunch and see a performance.

“We want to inspire the people of our neighborhood, and the people of Albany – and the people from Clifton Park – to come in and see what the arts can do to inspire all of us to be great people and have greater stories to tell,” Mancinelli-Cahill said.

This is the kind of downtown Albany drama that I, for one, hope the whole region can get behind.

Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.

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