New Kid on the Block: Canal Park Playhouse

Only one person at the Canal Park Playhouse, opening tomorrow, gets his name on the back of a chair—and it’s not founder Kipp Osborne. It’s the Artistic Director, Jack Coates. Coates, it should be mentioned, is a ventriloquist’s dummy, which gives you an idea of the fun, quirky spirit of the Playhouse.

The front room (that’s the one with “The Front Room” painted on the wall) will have tables for around 30 people and host musicians and other relatively low-production entertainment. The back room—located through the door marked “The Back Room”—seats around 50, on chairs Osborne purchased from the Sullivan Street Playhouse (where The Fantasticks ran) after it closed. The first production is a new play, Sparkling Object by D.B Gilles, but Osborne says that the four-actor cast is the largest one the Playhouse will ever have; he plans on focusing on one- and two-character plays. Sparkling Object will be followed by the Piccolini Trio, a troupe of clowns who perform for all ages. The Playhouse also has a resident theater company, Properties of Play. “They’re four or five actors trained in improv,” says Osborne. “They come onstage and announce that they’ll be doing three plays in 90 minutes, with an audience member as star of each one. If I didn’t know better I’d say it was a plant—that they were shucking me! The story really evolves. The audience member really is the star.” (Properties of Play’s first performance is Nov. 29, after which it will take the stage the second and fourth Monday of every month.) On Fridays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., there will be open-mic sessions exclusively for teenagers.

Appropriately for a theater with such joie de vivre, the concession stand will sell old-fashioned candy such as Necco Wafers, Mary Janes, and rock candy on a stick (modern candy will be available, too). More substantial options will include Jack’s Pig in a Blanket and Playhouse Pink Waffles with whipped cream and strawberries. The menu should be good to go after a week or two.

Osborne has been working on the project for the past year and a half. It seems safe to say, however, that this is something he has wanted to do for longer. He moved to the city when he was 19 to be an actor: “I went on auditions, ate spaghetti, had jobs like the one working nights at the New York Athletic Club so I could go on auditions during the day.” After six years, he says dryly, he became an overnight success, acting on Broadway in Butterflies Are Free. “I spent 10 years as a working actor,” he says. “In five years, I was in four Broadway plays. I was on a soap opera. I did off-Broadway plays, commercials, a movie on PBS. And then I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to design and build furniture.” For 20-odd years, he made furniture with his wife, Margot, under the name Osborne and Osborne. (For the Canal Park Playhouse, Kipp built a table in one of the two downstairs dressing rooms and a concession case; Margot made the ticket stand and a freestanding cabinet.) During that time, he wrote plays, two of which were finalists at the O’Neill Festival. One of those, Soho, They Call It, he made into a feature film starring Abe Vigoda. “We shot it in the Back Room and screened in the Front Room,” he says.

Actors Regina Gibson and James Patrick Earley rehearsing "Sparkling Object."

Osborne is clearly house-proud of the building, which dates from the 1820s. (“Landmarks said it was built in 1826, but then they sent over a plaque that says it was built in 1828.”) He and Margot rented it back in 1980, exercising an option to buy it four years later. They lived upstairs for a long time, and now they live in Rhinebeck. The remodeling has been done with care, utilizing vintage door hinges and other details. Because the space is small, storage has been tucked away everywhere—even under the stairs in the Back Room’s center aisle. There’s a modern control room, and Osborne happily points out which stage lights are LEDs, which use little electricity and last forever; moreover, the color can be changed from the control room, removing the need for gels. “We’re very green,” he says, pausing with an actor’s precision before delivering the punchline. “In lots of ways.”

Canal Park Playhouse is at 508 Canal, between Greenwich and Washington;

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