Unusual Grant Program Pays For Babysitting at the Theater


At the Playwrights Horizons childcare service, kids work on art projects while parents watch contemporary theater. [Photo:Jason Slotkin]

Theater company Playwrights Horizons has created  an innovative childcare program for theater goers who don’t want to leave kids at home while they are at a performance.

All a parent has to do is make a reservation at least a week in advance, drop a kid off before curtain time at the 42nd Street theater’s “Playtime” program, and then watch a show.

“We love the idea that they’re actually in the building. Literally, if something were to happen, we’re minutes away,” said Stuart Hoffman, a theater subscriber who lives in Queens. Hoffman has dropped off his 4-year-old son, Kai, several times during this theater season.

The childcare program, funded by a $77,000 grant, offers also an introduction to the arts to children, who get to spend two hours or so making masks, other crafts or their own plays.

Hoffman says that through this program “music and dancing” have become a bigger part of Kai’s life.  Kai now breaks into air guitar solos on occasion.

Since the program’s inception in February, Playwright Horizons has been working with Sitter Studios, an arts-focused childcare service, to provide babysitters and activities and organize this pilot program.

“It’s really important that children get an arts-based experience, as well as the parents who have the opportunity to see a show,” said Susan Ferziger, manager of Institutional Giving for Playwrights Horizons.

While theaters often qualify for a multitude of grant programs, this $77,000 came from a unique program that has funneled over $3 million from real estate development into selected New York theaters.

The grant program is financed by a portion – currently $14.91 for every square foot – of “air rights,” sales or transfer of any undeveloped theater space, to other building owners within the theater district.

Since the fund’s inception 13 years ago, it has accrued over $5 million from air rights sales. Each year since 2009, an appointed council representing both the city and theater community has sifted through applicants from theaters across New York to decide which programs get a payout from this development-financed  fund.

But development of real estate has slowed during a sluggish economy, and so has the sale of air rights, creating a situation where the grant administrators have doled out more money than they’ve taken in. The Theater Sub District Council, the group has awarded upwards of $1 million each year to various theater programs. This year, the council is budgeted to award another million to a selected group of applicants.

However, a few upcoming air rights transfers and a nearly $3 increase in the air rights fee could put more money into coffers of the grant program. According to land use attorney Samuel Lindenbaum, the theater district could be seeing development again.

“I’ve heard talk in the industry of more development in the area,” said Lindenbaum, who works at the New York law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel. “With the economy coming back, there’s more conversation.”

While most buildings can only transfer air rights to adjacent buildings, theater owners, because of a special zoning rule established in 1998, get the special privilege of selling air rights to any property in this district as long as a portion of sales go to the grant fund.

At the current rate, two of these special air rights transfers totaling over 42,075 square feet from both the Booth and Broadhurst theaters are expected to nab more than $627,000 for the grant fund if the city approves the air rights transfer. However, the program administrators are deciding another round of grant recipients for 2011.

In addition, just over $269,000 was  deposited into the fund earlier this month, said grant council member Wesley O’Brien in an email.

“We’ve given to organizations who could demonstrate a capacity to see [their projects] through,” said Paige Price, an actor, theater director, and City Council speaker Christine Quinn’s appointee to the council.

Last year, the council awarded a total amount of $2.15 million to proposals including: an Apollo Theater event called Broadway Uptown; theater restorations; Comedienne Rosie O’Donnell’s program for school age dramatists, and the Playwright Horizon’s sitter program. Each recipient, according to Price, added to New York’s theater scene and its audience.

The “Playtime” program is among several returning applicants for the 2011 program, said Ferziger. In addition, the theater is seeking other funding to continue the sitting service that was jump-started by the development sales grant. “It was a huge help. It was the reason we were able to launch the program in the first place,” said Ferziger, adding that Playwrights Horizons hopes to expand the program by partnering with other theaters.