UPPER WEST SIDE — West-Park Presbyterian Church holds services on Sunday mornings, but every night at 8 p.m. the church doubles as a Parisian apartment house.
From now until Sept. 17, the entire four-story church on West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue is serving as the set of "The Tenant," a free play being performed by Woodshed Collective, an "immersive" theater company .
Instead of using a traditional stage and seats, Woodshed Collective creates sets in unusual spots. Its 2009 show "The Confidence Man" was staged aboard a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard ship at Pier 40 on the Hudson River; in 2008 "Twelve Ophelias" took place at the McCarran Park pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Woodshed spent three months transforming about 51 spaces inside the church — including stairways, halls, meeting rooms, offices, and kitchens — for the production.
The play, based on a novel by Roland Topor that was also the inspiration for a 1976 Roman Polanski film, tells the story of a man who unravels psychologically after he rents a room whose previous tenant apparently committed suicide by leaping out the window.
The church's top floor gymnasium, which isn't in use right now, was reborn as the Bohemian, loft-style apartment for the main character's love interest. A former nursery became the apartment of two characters, a mother and her invalid daughter. All the rooms were designed to look like they're inhabited by real people. There's an unmade bed in one "apartment," and a cookie sheet of macaroons on another room's kitchen counter.
Woodshed Collective was originally looking for a warehouse space, but chose West-Park because the ramshackle building had features that would have cost set designers a fortune to fake, said artistic director Stephen Squibb. For example, some walls have remnants of decaying, 19th-century wallpaper.
"The texture and feeling of the building provide an amazing canvas for us to tell the story," said Teddy Bergman, one of Woodshed's artistic directors. "By virtue of it being a church, there's a heightened feeling to the achitecture. It feels eerie and performative already, which makes it prime space to present theater."
The production is similar to a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Audience members roam the church during the two-hour performance, following whichever character or storyline they choose. That's part of the reason tickets are free, said Squibb. "You literally can only see one-sixth of the show on a given night," Squibb said.
Audience members have responded to the production with an "intrepid desire" to follow the characters, Bergman said. That could be because the show seems to satisfy a voyeuristic urge, he said. "There's an essential curiosity in New Yorkers to find out what's going on in the apartment next to you," Bergman said. "This kind of scratches that itch."
Doubling as a theater set has been a boon to West-Park, said Rev. Robert Brashear. The church, which was landmarked against the will of its congegration in 2010, is in desperate need of an major renovation.
Woodshed's presence in the building has helped the church inch closer toward that goal. Collective members spent weeks clearing decades of debris out of the aging building's nooks and crannies, and the church had to repair a bathroom for use during the production.
Brashear eventually wants to build a center for "spiritual and social transformation" at the church, but that can't happen without costly repairs and upgrades, including a new boiler. Press coverage about "The Tenant" has helped shine a light on West-Park, but Brashear was disappointed that some stories incorrectly referred to church as "vacant."
"We are open, and there is life in this space," Brashear said. "We're not an abandoned building."
Nightly performances of "The Tenant," which is expected to draw about 3,000 people by the end of its run, have pumped fresh energy into West-Park's dilapidated building, Brashear said.
"I was looking around last night at all the people who are excited to be here," Brashear said. "It really made me happy that the building is being used and experienced."