All the world’s a stage … with the right vision

Creating and running a contemporary theater company was not part of Dan Shanahan’s life plan.

He was pursuing an undergraduate degree at SUNY Buffalo State when he took a directing class. A fellow student asked him to take a look at a place in the heart of Buffalo’s Polonia neighborhood to consider the site for a production. It was an old building, the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle on Fillmore Avenue, established in 1895 as a social club for Buffalo’s significant Polish population. “It was an open space,” said Shanahan, “just a real bare hall, and I liked that it was an open raw space. We put on what we thought a theater production should be, even though I never did one before.”

Turns out it was a transformative experience, for Shanahan, for the neighborhood, and for Buffalo’s renowned theater community. That chance student production formed the foundation for Torn Space Theater, the experimental contemporary theater company Shanahan and his wife, Melissa Meola, founded in 2001 that--by mission--produces work that is outside the mainstream. “Without really knowing, we created a niche for ourselves,” said Shanahan.

The couple’s project had a slow start: Early productions were self-funded on his bartender and her Buffalo Public School teacher salaries. The company received modest support from the New York State Council on the Arts and other traditional cultural funding sources. By the time they incorporated and achieved not-for-profit organization status in 2005 and 2007 respectively, Shanahan’s entrepreneurial sense took over. He saw opportunity in Buffalo’s compelling architectural treasures, places that weren’t your typical performance spaces. Much like the company’s home, still at the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, these were places that had texture to them and suffered from diminished attention. The couple hatched an idea: bring theater to places where it isn’t expected. And maybe the production is something unique in the local theater landscape. They began to connect the dots between under-visited urban spaces, offbeat productions, an audience that was seeking something a little different. “This is where we accelerated,” Shanahan said, “when we branched out into site-specific theater.”

That Torn Space Theater still had its home on Fillmore Avenue was “a happy accident,” said Shanahan, because the company’s first site-specific program was at Buffalo’s iconic Central Terminal, a scant quarter-mile away. It was 2007, and the Terminal was going to be re-introduced to the community as a venue for community activities, another phase in its redevelopment. This was the time, Shanahan said, to “re-imagine a space outside of its utilitarian function,” and showcase culture and historic preservation in a meaningful way. If all this wasn’t offbeat enough, Shanahan and Meola were able to attract funding from New York state--because of the venue and the marriage between production and location--which brought gravitas to the dream.

The next foray took the company to Silo City, a collection of grain elevators owned by Rigidized Metals’ Rick Smith. Grain elevators are to Buffalo’s First Ward what Central Terminal is to the East Side: tall, sturdy structures that are symbolic of a proud industrial past, not usually the place for theater.

“We started working there in 2012, just when Rick Smith was opening up the space to the culturals as performance spaces. We design a new production there every year,” said Shanahan. This was another turning point for Torn Space: Working at Silo City invited the opportunity to obtain more funding from New York state through Empire State Development, the Western Region in the Regional Economic Development Council. “This way,” Shanahan said, “we could position arts and culture as a vehicle to promote other spaces around Buffalo.”

This was a groundbreaking philosophy: conventional thinking earmarked these funds for waterfront development projects, mostly tied to retail operations or other initiatives that could return a stream of revenue. But the state was ready to see something new. Arts Service Initiative of Western New York was engaged in the process, vetting arts organizations to bring people to the Inner Harbor without the formerly anticipated retail draw. Shanahan said this is tied to the concept of smart growth, where “you don’t radically impose projects on a neighborhood. You create projects and let the evolve organically,” he said.

Hence, installations like Shark Girl at the Inner Harbor, weeknight theater performances at the Erie Canal Commercial slip, and other experiences dotted this valued and valuable landscape. These fixtures attract people, buzz, activity, and commerce, too. Silo City became part of this: The site was enormous and full of fascinating buildings that beckoned Shanahan and Meola to once again be bold and visionary in bringing visiting artists to Buffalo and develop local talent, too.

This strategy also helped leverage other funds from private foundations and others who liked Shanahan and Meola’s bold performances and fresh thinking. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation is a supporter, and the Junior League of Buffalo also awarded Torn Space proceeds from its 2017 Decorators’ Show House.

While these site-specific performances--often featuring 600 Highwaymen, a theater troupe from New York City that performs cutting-edge contemporary work--attract audiences throughout the region, “home” for Torn Space is still the 90-seat Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle. A capital campaign is changing that dynamic, too: 25 percent of the funds already raised have come from various New York state funding arms that aren’t traditional arts and culture sources.

Torn Space is still helping transform that neighborhood. Last year, the company used the vacant space next store to make another statement: a newly built extension. Inside, it’s a design studio and conference space. The exterior is a stainless-steel sculpture that plays off the Old World elegance of the neighboring St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church and the shadow of Central Terminal.

“We wanted the outside to be a beautiful destination,” Shanahan said.

Designed by architect Christopher Romano, it’s a shiny beacon by day and it glows from the inside artificial lights at night. To celebrate this, the season opened with a production called “Light/Station.” Participation from the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and a lighting designer created a stunning visual and aural experience, combining dramatic lighting with a musical performance in St. Stanislaus church using its 1893 Johnson & Son organ. The intent, Shanahan said, was to reintroduce people to this historic neighborhood.

Shanahan and Meola are dedicated to keep innovating. Shanahan--now the Nancy Haberman Gacioch Professor in Creative Entrepreneurism at Daemen College--wants Torn Space to be more engaged with the entrepreneur ecosystem. “Efforts like 43North,” he said, “are changing the culture of the startup community. We need to be part of that.”

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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