The gift from the writer and performer will help create an educational hub at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
By Jennifer Schuessler
Harvey Fierstein may be a multiple Tony-winning performer and writer. But he is also the son of a librarian, who still sometimes heads to the reading room when he needs to do homework.
In 2005, when he was preparing to play Tevye in a revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” he visited the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to watch a recording of an earlier Broadway revival featuring Zero Mostel, which is included in its famed Theater on Film and Tape Archive.
“And don’t tell anyone, but I’ve also used the library,” he said in an interview, dropping his famous Brooklyn molasses-spiked-with-gravel voice, “for pleasure.”
Now, Fierstein has donated $2.5 million to create a new “theater lab” at the library’s Lincoln Center campus, a dedicated educational space where students and the general public will be able to attend programs drawing on its vast holdings of photographs, scripts, recordings, set models, costumes and other materials.
“Live theater is live theater — you do it and that’s it,” said Fierstein, 67. “Without a library collecting this stuff, our whole history disappears.”
The lab, which will be named for Fierstein, is to be built in what is currently a 770-square-foot office space. In a statement, Jennifer Schantz, the library’s director, said it would be “an incubator of creativity” that embodies “the library’s mission to inspire lifelong learning using the theater division’s unparalleled collections.”
The performing arts library holds material from shows Fierstein wrote or performed in, including “Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Kinky Boots” and “Hairspray.” But as it happens, his personal papers are elsewhere.
In 2005, before a home renovation, Fierstein placed his personal archive at Yale University. “So I needed to also do something for the performing arts library,” he said.
In addition to the $2.5 million donation, the library has been named a beneficiary of the Harvey Fierstein Trust, which will allow it to receive additional support in the future.
Fierstein said he hoped the lab would help people reimagine what theater can be after the pandemic, which shuttered the entire industry. He recalled how over the years, every time he did a revival of “Torch Song Trilogy,” for which he won his first two Tonys in 1983, he would call the downtown experimental theater La MaMa to ask if he could use their rehearsal space, which he described as a kind of spiritual home.
“I would ask, ‘Can I borrow your basement?’” he said. “I thought of it as a kind of womb. That’s what I think of this space as — a womb for something wonderful. You just don’t know what’s going to be born out of it.”
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