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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

OOB Venues Study Published

The New York Innovate Theater Foundation has completed a five-year study of Off Off Broadway venues. It's fantastic to see efforts being made to show the real, not anecdotal, behavior of Off-Off Broadway.

You can read the report here.

Some of the highlights:

  • Over 25% of OOB venues in both the West Village and Midtown area have either been demolished or repurposed into non-performance spaces in the last 5 years
  • 43% of all OOB venues are located in the West Side Midtown area of Manhattan
  • There has been a sharp decline in the number of OOB productions presenting work in the Theatre District
  • The East Village, which only accounts for 14% of the overall OOB venues, is currently presenting 30% of the OOB productions.

Quotes from the press release:

"The rate of the erosion of our stages is alarming. Over the last 5 years, we have lost 26% of the Off-Off-Broadway stages in the Midtown area. We have watched a steady decline in the number of productions that are taking place in the "theatre district." Even more disturbing is the fact that of the 30 Off-Off-Broadway houses in the Greenwich Village area, over 25% have already been lost and with the displacement of the theatres from the Archive Building, that percentage increases to 40%" said Shay Gines, Executive Director, New York Innovative Theatre Foundation.

"The research and information contained in this report not only substantiate the numbers needed to help effectively advocate for public policy change as it relates to small non-profit theatre in New York City, but it also creates a clear barometer of the passion and fiery commitment it takes to simply exist in the Off-Off-Broadway world." - David M. Pincus, Chairman, Theater Task Force, Community Board 4


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A few things stick out to me.

The first is the localization of Off-Off Broadway around Midtown West. I think a shorthand that I use, and I've heard used, to describe Off-Off is "downtown" theater. Suffice to say, that's got to be revised.

The second is a list of now-defunct Off-Off Broadway spaces.

29th Street Theatre
78th Street Theatre Lab, 2nd floor (scheduled to close in 2009)
78th Street Theatre Lab, 3rd floor
Actors Playhouse
Bowerie Lane Theatre
Chelsea Repertory Company
Collective Unconscious
Creative Place Theatre
Culture Project
Douglas Fairbanks Theatre
Emerging Artists Theatre
Flatiron Theatre (where Blue Coyote Theater Group produced my play The Great Escape, on a personal note)
Greenwich Street Theatre
Grove Street Playhouse
Hinton Battle Dance Laboratory
Intar Theatre
John Houseman - Theatre 1 - OB space
John Houseman - Theatre 2
John Houseman - Theatre 3
Jose Quintero
Michael Weller Theatre
Nat Horne Theatre
New Perspectives Theatre
Oasis Theatre
Pelican Theatre
Perry Street Theatre
Provincetown Playhouse
Sanford Meisner Theatre
Show World Theatre
Studio Dante
The Tank on 42nd Street
Theatre 5
Trilogy Theatre
Village Gate Theatre
Vital Children's Theatre
Where Eagles Dare

And here are, according to the report, theatres currently in danger of eviction

Epiphany Theatre
Interborough Repertory Theater
The Wings Theatre
Theatre for a New Audience - OB space
13th Street Repertory Theatre

Quite a list. That's 36 closed Off Off Broadway venues.

It's also noteworthy to see that 84% of producing companies that responded to the survey note that they "Rent Various Locations" for their performances. 5% of producers responding claimed a permanent home. It shows how rental prices directly affect the community at large, and how the economics of rent are simply a central factor of what is produced Off-Off Broadway.

What do you see in this report? What alarms you? And, more than that, how can we use this information to make a positive change in Off-Off Broadway, and the New York Theater scene as a whole? If you're not from NYC, what here speaks to you from the perspective of your own locale? Are you seeing theater's close?

Let's also remember this: this report was done over the last 5 years. The economy is in dire straits right now. If this has been what's been happening for half a decade, what can we expect under far worse financial conditions?

5 comments:

Ian G said...

This is very, very grim. The current economic meltdown could fundamentally change how theatre gets done, not just in NYC, but nationally. This is the bad news, but it's also potentially the good news, in that sometimes a fundamental shake-up yields really great, unexpected results. If there is a bright side, it's that we all may come out of this with a new way of doing things, and be stronger for it. Maybe.

Hard to see any bright side looking at reports like this, though. And it's not confined to OOB, or NYC. It's affecting all tiers of theatre, all over the country, as we saw in that article earlier that weirdly considered the Goodman to be something of an upstart.

Some really different thinking is gonna be needed to weather this one. Theatre has become a vastly expensive, often mega-bloated enterprise. Many theatres' design budgets have skyrocketed, while salaries have only inched upward. Many theatres are incredibly wasteful of their resources (multi-million dollar sets for eight week runs that just get - thrown out). Recently there has been a nationwide glut of new building projects, multi-million dollar new spaces for theatres all over. I worry that those new building costs were leveraged no better than home mortgages of late, and many theatres may find themselves with sparkling new spaces attached to debts that crush them. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that a lot of the practices of "big budget" theatre are unsustainable. Belt tightening may encourage creative thinking and wean the big houses off the "throw money at it" solution.

As for theatres that already have severely limited resources, it's gonna take a massive cooperative effort to keep things afloat. I'm working on some Showcase Code reform proposals that I hope will make OOB producing more financially feasible, and give Equity actors a stake, and a piece, of that financial success. OOB companies tend to be incredibly financially efficient, we're already good at making do with less and so are in many ways more psychologically prepared for what's coming.

It's gonna be an uphill climb.

Joshua James said...

It's not even partial of what really happened, I know Surf Reality closed in 2002, and NADA a couple years before that, Trilogy went down in 02, shoot, there used to be a bunch of spaces and they began disappearing long before 2003, I don't think anyone could really list them all . . . it all just got too expensive, the rent, that much I do know . . .

Joshua James said...

I think RAW SPACE closed in 2002 or 3 as well, that place had three theatres and more importantly, it was the go-to place for rehearsal space, it had loads and was affordable.

RAW SPACE was like on 42nd and 11th, something like that, a big huge warehouse with lots of room . . . it's gone now.

MattJ said...

"how can we use this information to make a positive change in Off-Off Broadway, and the New York Theater scene as a whole? "

Personally, I think it means that we in the theatre have the unique opportunity to prove that our art form, in its most basic form, needs only human beings to exist.

We can start a new grassroots effort which stresses unconventional theatre spaces, a stripping away of excess, and a belief in the power of the relationship between spectator and performer.

We have a chance to make theatre less about the money it takes to make it, think outside the box, and truly be that independent theatre we all always talk about. Independence can't come just from discourse, it has to come from fresh ideas, risk-taking, and action. And we have an opportunity here to do that. If we are willing to think outside the box and not shackle ourselves to old conventions and old ideas.

DPS said...

The one thing that continues to stick with me from reading the report is finally seeing numbers on this:

"The 8% of OOB companies from the study that have been producing for over 20 years represent a wide variety of company structures, genres and locations. However one common factor that all of these companies share is that they have been presenting work at the same location for at least 15 years."

I think that's incredibly important when we're talking about a community of companies whose average lifespan is about 2 1/2 years.