100 years! That’s a long time for any institution in our country to exist. But 100 years for a theatre institution? – unheard of!And that’s exactly what the Drama Book Shop is – not just a book shop – but a theatre institution that recently even won a prestigeous Tony award for excellent service to theatre. Now any book shop would like to be a community, but in this day and age of dominating corporate life, the old, quaint, musty and full of character book shops are sadly a thing of the past. Even giants like Barnes and Noble are struggling to survive. And frankly the way they try to do it is to provide added cafe service where so called book lovers can congregate to eat, drink and pick up attractive stray strangers – never mind ever browsing the book shelves or – heaven forbid – ever buying a book. The Drama Book Shop doesn’t have a cafe but still provides that rare commodity – a warm, cozy, down to earth environment where there’s one simple common bond that makes it a real community – a love of theatre.
My SIMON STUDIO – now in its 37th. year as a training and development center for actors, writers and directors – has been in residence at the Drama Book Shop’s Arthur Seelen Theatre for over 12 years now. And there’s a reason that we like being in this community. The shop is not really in the business of renting space for theatre training and production, so I feel very priviledged to be among the few “in residency” there. There’s something very unique and special about being in a place where there’s nothing but theatre books and plays. At the Drama Book Shop theatre books and published plays are king and what could be better? After all aren’t students of theatre supposed to read? This is a good question in this day and age where theatre students often prefer looking for the quick fix of choosing monologue books rather than actually reading full plays (takes too much time!). But at least they have the staff to ask questions and point them in the direction of what actually to read and consider other than those damn monologue books. And unlike most book shop staffs who come and go like ships in the night, the Drama Book Shop staff appears to be a real family. There’s Allen Hubby and the gang: Ric, Marcus, Nancy, Bill, Stu, Matt, Barbara among numerous others who really make you feel part of their “theatre family” – where otherwise there’s so much daily rejection. You feel that positive spirit – thanks mostly to the late Arthur Seelen from those early days of the shop (when it was on 47th. and 7th. Ave). Since those early days that I remember well most staff members feel a real bond to the shop and therefore usually stay for many years. Arthur made it an intimate family community that really cared, and thankfully that tradition is still there today. Yes, families can quibble at times (what family doesn’t, particularly in theatre) but families are rare in any business these days and that counts a lot for the warmth and joy of coming into the shop. You really feel like the staff cares for each person looking for help and guidance. You really feel they want to turn you on to the joy of all things theatre. That’s because – rather than making sales – most of the staff still is or was at one time an active theatre participant and truly loves it.
And the shop also offers a very important additional service in providing personal access to both new and established playwrights and other theatre professionals. Particularly with well known theatre professionals, how else would they be accessible to the general public? Weekly talk backs and lectures by both new and established professionals (usually as part of book signings) provide endless opportunities for making actual contact. When I worked in the London theatre of the late 60’s and ’70s directing at the Royal Court Theatre and elsewhere the average person could easily have access to theatre professionals. It was not a rare thing. But somehow NYC is just not as hospitable to making personal contact. So how important it is to have this access and again to feel a part of that theatre “family” – even if it’s just for a brief moment of contact. Just the other day, I had a reunion at the shop with playwright David Hare when he was speaking about his recent Broadway play SKYLIGHT at his play signing event. I hadn’t really spoken with David since directing his early play SLAG at the Hampstead Theatre in London and again at the N.Y. Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre in the early ’70s. How special it was to be with him again, and I proudly helped introduce him to my theatre now – the Arthur Seelen Theatre!
So no, the Drama Book Shop doesn’t provide regular food and drink cafe service like Barnes and Noble. But there’s always those regular book signing wine and cheese events, not to mention those occasional “after hour” get togethers among the book shop clan. Mostly though, it’s the “food and drink” of guzzling up and celebrating that theatre world culture among those who love serving and those who love being served theatre. And after all, isn’t that what real celebration is about?