The East Village’s wildest theater

By Rachel Breitman

Given its name, the interior of The Wild Project looks downright tame.

The theater’s modern white exterior evokes the sophisticated calm of a high-end gallery. On the walls of the lobby is a photography exhibit, and during intermission, the audience members have their pick of organic wine and beer — the first hint at the venue’s underlying greenness.

Since its June 2007 extreme makeover, the East Village theater (formerly The Bottle Factory), has transformed itself from a ragged performance space to a 99-seat eco-playhouse. In the process of renovating the space, owner and artistic director, Amanda Gruss, chose environmentally-friendly design elements like large picture windows and transparent doors that capture natural daylight, bamboo-clad seating platforms, energy efficient heating and cooling systems, low-flush toilets, solar panels and a green roof.

“We were thinking about moving it to a bigger venue, but we looked around and the rents were so high,” said Gruss. “I wanted to do a renovation eventually, and I wanted to do green things for a while, to use sustainable materials, explore energy-saving technologies.” She added later by email, “I am striving to be as conscious as possible so that my actions have a positive impact on the world.” It’s also her hope that The Wild Project’s green renovation will inspire other cultural venues in New York to follow suit.

In an effort to keep the raw, industrial design of the bottle factory that once stood at the address, the architects left ample exposed wood, roof joists, and brick walls.

“Though we gutted a huge part of it, we retained a lot of the existing character, so it had some history,” said Gita Nandan, an architect from Thread Collective, which led the renovation.

The most innovative feature, however, is the eco-roofscape — a wood deck and green roof, which keeps the building cool. Marni Horwitz, the owner of plant design firm Alive Structures, used modular interlocking panels filled with a soil-mixture and a seed mixture to create a rooftop of wild plants.

“By the spring, it should be 50 percent covered, and by next fall it will look like a thick carpet of green,” said Horwitz. While she has never designed a green roof for a theater before, she said the slow-growing design fits the seasonal nature of theatrical performances.

While the new renovations were pricey, Gruss, who has run the space for almost five years, is hoping that some of the changes may breed long-term savings.

“Green roofs bring down the energy cost by creating shade for the roof in the summer,” explained Horwitz. “They breathe in carbon dioxide and produce cool oxygen. The evapo-transpiration contributes to the cooling of the air.”

Eventually, Gruss would like to spread the ecologically-minded themes into the programming.

“It is more difficult to connect theater to issues in the environment,” says Gruss, “but if we find a piece that is good and does connect to something relevant then we would love to produce it.”

Instead, the Wild Project is focusing on other media like films, photography and art work “to address what is happening in the environment and the world.” Their current photography exhibit, “Hybrids,” installed in the 400-square-foot lobby, is not exactly eco-themed, but it is global in its approach, as photographer Llause Thyman traveled the world to capture strange environments and captivating subcultures, from an underground garden in Tokyo to revelers at Burning Man. And Gruss has plans to screen an upcoming film “about the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and indigenous cultures who are working to preserve their land.”

In the meantime, the plays at The Wild Project focus more on the ecology of the human condition, with Grant James Varjas’ music-fueled drama “33-to-Nothing” telling the story of an aging rock group, caught between their dreams of musical fame and the unavoidable pulls of adulthood. The show’s second run just closed last month.

Next up: a similarly intimate show called “Family Head,” slated to open in January. The play by Jay Di Pietro centers on the drama of family life, with the aging matriarch suffering heart pains while her two daughters fight over the same man.

The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St, 212-352-3101, thewildproject.com.

The Wild Project is the only theater in New York City with a green roof.