Walk up the marble steps and through the hefty wooden doors of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street, and meet with a choice: laminated signs point to a black box theater up a staircase on the right, and the 1,000 seat sanctuary to the left.
The church near West End Avenue houses the West End Theater, a 74-seat space on the building’s second floor with six rows of worn, red-cushioned seats, which serves as a home theater for five different performance companies. A United Methodist congregation, the church also partners with B’Nai Jeshurun synagogue, which hosts Saturday services at the church, as well as two Muslim groups and an LGBT congregation, and houses an array of social services, including a food pantry, a women’s shelter and a Meals on Wheels distribution center.
“It’s a very lively place,” said Rev. K Karpen, a pastor at the church since 1984.
The bustle within the church didn’t go unnoticed by Theatre 167, one of the resident theater groups, whose new play, “The Church of Why Not,” opens Feb. 20 and is inspired by the many people who pass through the doors of its home church.
Though fictional, the play’s characters all connect to the real day-to-day-workings of the church, from a 13-year-old Jewish boy with adoptive Christian parents preparing for his Bar Mitzvah to an alcoholic walking into his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to a recovering drug addict from Washington Heights who visits one of the church’s volunteer tax preparers and stumbles upon a 12 step program.
“It’s about looking at the ways that we’re all connected,” said Ari Laura Kreith, the director of the play and co-founder of Theatre 167. “And to understand both what we have in common and how we can move forward in the world in a way that serves not only our own interests but interests of the larger community, and understanding that those are actually our interests.”
Kreith formed Theatre 167 in 2010, while living in Jackson Heights in Queens, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city, which inspired the company’s first play “167 Tongues,” a reference to the number of languages found in the neighborhood. The group then created a trilogy of full-length plays about the neighborhood, written by 18 writers in 14 different languages.
Much like Jackson Heights served as organic inspiration, the company couldn’t ignore the church’s welcoming and active environment.
“We were creating work that was basically exploring cultural intersection and the way that communities come together,” Kreith said during a break in rehearsals for the new show. “We didn’t want to have conversations about other communities and cultures without first saying, ‘What’s here?’”
When Karpen first came to the church in 1984 right out of seminary, a vibrant congregation from decades earlier had dwindled, and the upkeep of the enormous building proved daunting. The congregation wanted to raze the church and erect a more modestly-sized building, but because the church, which was built in 1897, was landmarked by the city, Karpen and the congregation looked for uses for the surplus space.
In the mid-eighties, the church began partnering with other congregations and started a food pantry from a few bags of groceries. Now the church partners with the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, and the pantry serves 42,000 families, Karpen said.
Like the pantry, much of the church’s activities started with small, untested ideas, and a refrain that lent Theatre 167 the title for its play.
“I’ve been in churches where, whenever somebody gets an idea, they have all the reasons why you can’t do it,” said Karpen, an energetic man with a thinning gray ponytail and rimless eyeglasses who bounds up the church’s steps two at a time. “But for me, it’s always been the church of why not. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But go for it. Let’s try. It’s a very permissive place in that way.”
When Theatre 167 came to the church theater in the fall of 2013, Kreith noticed a parallel between the variety of activities and services offered in the church and the diverse communities living together in her Queens neighborhood. When the company started writing the show about a year ago, Karpen told the writers about the history of the church and its programs, eventually lending his office, cluttered with stacked empty boxes, for writer’s meetings.
“I was a little surprised and flattered,” Karpen said about the genesis for the play. “It’s kind of just what we do and I think it’s what a church should do. I think it’s what a church should be. To be available and to be useful to God’s people, and that’s everybody.”
Kreith asked the show’s three writers, who created the script collaboratively, to learn about a religious service offered at the church that was unfamiliar. Jenny Lyn Bader, who is Jewish and an Upper West Side resident, occasionally attended services with the church’s partner synagogue, but learned about the Methodist offerings while writing the play.
“There are actually some really interesting connections between all religions,” said Bader, who now tutors at the church on Wednesday nights.
Members of the company immersed themselves in the church community, baking pies for Thanksgiving dinner at the nearby Goddard Riverside Community Center, tutoring students in the after-school program and chipping in with painting and building maintenance.
“They dug in,” Karpen said. “They got involved. “
J. Stephen Brantley, one of the show’s writers, spent time in the food pantry, which inspired one of his scenes. Brantley was raised in a conservative Christian community in Texas, and then spent 10 years studying Kabbalah.
“What’s really interesting about this place is the way spirituality manifests in work,” said Brantley, who also plays a country singer. “What you don’t hear about so much is institutions that are feeding hundreds of thousands of families, you know? You don’t hear about religious institutions that are welcoming to people of all faiths, like this community. Those stories go untold.”
Like much of New York, the church’s neighborhood has changed significantly since Karpen first arrived on West 86th Street. The pastor remembers when the church’s stoop was a hotbed for drug deals, and the alley next door was a hangout for prostitutes, a far cry from the church’s now charming surroundings.
Bader said a diverse community endures on the Upper West Side, despite common preconceptions that the neighborhood has lost some of its idiosyncrasies as national chains moved in.
“There are these amazing pockets of the Upper West Side,” she said. “There’s just an extraordinary community with amazing depth and so many different kinds of people of all ages, races, cultures, religions and income brackets, all sharing a community. And it’s unique.”
IF YOU GO:
What: “The Church of Why Not,” a new play by Camilo Almonacid, Jenny Lyn Bader and J. Stephen Brantley, conceived and directed by Ari Laura Kreith
When: Feb. 20-March 15
Where: The West End Theater at The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, 263 West 86th St., between Broadway and West End Avenue
Tickets: $18; visit www.theatre167.org for ticketing information