On the quiet stretch of Bleecker Street between Lafayette Street and Bowery, one truly gets a sense of what makes Lower Manhattan so uniquely special. It’s a true motley medley, where effortlessly charming rowhomes stand next to industrial lofts and artist residences, and the ground floor spaces are home to art galleries, boxing gyms, storied bars, buzzy boutiques and much more. There’s a little something for everyone on these blocks. Amidst it all lies the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.
Originally opened in 2015, the Sheen Center is a one-of-a-kind Off-Broadway theater and performance space owned by the Archdiocese of New York. While you can no doubt find Catholic programming here, the real purpose of the Center is to serve as a platform for thoughtful, inclusive, and respectful dialogue and be a home for the arts, with a special focus on faith and spirituality. You’ll find everything from Mexico Beyond Mariachi, which celebrates traditional Mexican cultural traditions and folklore, to The SoHo Forum, which hosts monthly debate nights on philosophical inquiries, or even an original comedy play starring Sopranos star David Proval. And, in October, A Good Egg presents the New York City premiere of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, directed by Austin Pendleton.
As the Sheen Center was finding its footing after its initial debut, COVID struck. During the Pandemic-induced closure, Bill Biddle, a seasoned industry veteran who has managed performing arts venues across the country, took over as Executive Director. Bill brings an exciting energy, new ideas, and an incredible vision to the Sheen Center, which he dubs “Sheen Center 2.0.” This vision, guided by Bill’s deep passion for the mission of the Sheen Center and his expertise, seeks to transform the Sheen Center into a traditional performing arts venue with a focus on faith and spirituality. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that Bill’s uniquely suited to bring to fruition.
Bill actually found the arts totally by accident. After an injury in high school, he left sports, and started doing theater. After his first show, he knew he loved the theater and wanted to be an actor, but “realized he wasn’t that good.” However, he did have a natural knack for technical design and production, and he eventually graduated with a master’s degree in Theater Design and Production Management. During his first job out of graduate school, at the “hot mecca of theater and culture, Fargo, North Dakota,” Bill was teaching theater at North Dakota State University. For a little extra cash, he managed the box office and was a natural at it. From there, Bill worked his way up through performing arts venues, and eventually transitioned entirely into venue management. Prior to joining the Sheen Center, he was the founding director of the I.M. Pei designed Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News, Virginia, and more recently director of the Tilles Center at Long Island University in Brookville, New York.
“I’m nearer to the end of my career than the beginning, and the Sheen Center checked a lot of boxes for me. It’s a place where I’m able to combine a lot of things, including my faith and my love of the arts, and is in a great location in New York City,” Bill notes. His enthusiasm for the Sheen Center was vibrantly on display during our meeting, and it’s easy to see why he was selected to launch the Center into an exciting new era as we leave COVID behind. Bill expresses a deep passion for the interfaith mission of the Sheen Center, and notes that not only is he himself not Catholic, but also the organization’s board of directors includes Rabbi Joseph Potasnik who is the Executive Vice President of The New York Board of Rabbis and Reverend A.R. Bernard, Pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. “We want to provide a welcoming space for all people and should our programming inspire those curious about spirituality or the Catholic faith then it’s all the better.”
It’s an admirable goal, and one that Bill views as essential in this day and age. In an era often bereft of respectful, inclusive discussion and with inflamed tensions, it’s remarkable that there’s a place like the Sheen Center where family friendly programming is featured alongside nuanced discussion of the human condition, interfaith dialogue, and much more. Alongside his passion for the mission of the Sheen Center, Bill’s depth of knowledge and expertise on venue management is a key component of Sheen Center 2.0. More rehearsal space is being added, smart upgrades are being made to the facility, and the Sheen Center is on track to be financially self-sustaining even earlier than expected.
It’s also just a great time to be in NoHo. “There’s new restaurants and retail coming online in the neighborhood,” Bill notes and he’s excited to see the neighborhood thriving. The Sheen Center doing well and adding more excitement and bringing more people into the neighborhood, “is what energizes me.” Perhaps most excitingly, things are just now beginning to hit their stride, as the changes Bill’s been working on since joining the Sheen Center a year ago are finally coming to fruition, and the exciting programming he’s been booking hits the events calendar.
Bill’s also deeply inspired by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen himself, the Center’s namesake. Archbishop Sheen was a deep admirer of the arts, and was a leader in the kind of interfaith dialogue that the Sheen Center promotes today. For twenty years on the radio and from 1952 to 1968 on television, “Father Sheen” as he was known, hosted nightly programming that took a common sense approach to modern day topics and drew tens of millions of viewers. There’s one quote from Archbishop Sheen more than any other that resonates with Bill: “believe the incredible and you can do the impossible.” I can see why he likes it so much, in our discussion we bounced all over the place. There’s a lot of moving pieces as Bill works to transform the Sheen Center into a true hub for the arts, community, and spirituality, and I’m not sure most people could do it. It’s certainly incredible, and does seem a little impossible that this venue can do so much. Much like the stretch of Bleecker Street it calls home, Bill hopes for the Sheen Center to have a little something for everyone as well. He wisely quips that, “we can’t be all things to all people, but the Sheen Center can serve a unique purpose and mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.”
Click here to learn more about the Sheen Center and see what performances are coming up.