The Decline of Off-Broadway

7:50 PM / Posted by Ashley /

Two articles that are worth reading...,0,

Linda Winer: The sad decline of Off-Broadway
Linda Winer
Critical Mass
September 28, 2008

Where's Off-Broadway? This is not a trick question, like the one about how to get to Carnegie Hall. You see, most theatergoers, after a few visits, know where to find what we know as Broadway - the nearly 40 playhouses that line and, more often, adjoin Broadway, the boulevard, from 41st Street to 54th.

In contrast, Off-Broadway has always been more of a sensibility than a neighborhood. Fomented almost a century ago in rebellion of theater as mere mass entertainment, the far-flung "Off" movement sprawled downtown, uptown, all around town. Most unromantically, such theaters are defined by size (fewer than 499 seats) and union contracts (far more modest than Broadway deals). Most undeniably, they have been responsible for the bulk of New York's challenging theater of the past half century.

But I'm not asking directions to these theaters today. What I'm asking has more to do with the direction of their movement. Whatever happened to the thriving scene that supported artists and seduced audiences with edgy, serious, unconventional work that didn't need to attract thousands of customers a week or compete with " Mamma Mia!" and movie stars for attention?

There's a sea change in New York theater, one both healthy and alarming. Thanks to the smash success of such risky transfers as "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights," it appears that everyone wants to go to Broadway now. "Hair," Neil LaBute's "reasons to be pretty" and "Fela!," Bill T. Jones' Afro-beat bio-musical, are either scheduled for transfer or heavily rumored for one. Youth and multicultural demographics are the drug of choice for a business flattened out by chandelier-falling spectacles and rote revivals. After all, "Rent" and "Avenue Q" broke the mold so smoothly that it is hard to remember a time when their move from tiny theaters was considered a high-stakes gamble.

But the beast is in danger of eating its young. Today's Broadway has accomplished the goal it set a decade ago. It's an awesome branding machine. Big-bucks producers are sniffing around every Off-Broadway production that has a pulse, much less a buzz. The financial and celebrity allure of the commercial theater is perilously close to sucking the energy from Off-Broadway productions that aren't aimed at being a crossover phenomenon. Add the economic meltdown, even before this month, and cutbacks in coverage from mainstream media everywhere, and it must be lonely out there for anyone more interested in putting on a play than a blockbuster.

Off-Broadway used to be the place where theater artists could get cachet, even if they couldn't get rich and famous. But the best commercial Off-Broadway houses (including the Promenade, the Century, Variety Arts) were sold as real estate in recent years. Producing in those smaller houses was obviously less attractive financially than a big leap to Broadway. Thus, plays acclaimed in the nonprofit institutional theaters (the Vineyard, MCC Theater, Playwrights Horizons, the Public, Primary Stages) have nowhere else to move.

In today's winner-take-all culture, the payoff is eligibility for Tony Awards, which are owned by Broadway, and the brand imprimatur on roadshow potential. This is well and good, not to mention pretty fascinating for anyone watching the fate of the seriously hormone-charged "Spring Awakening," just starting its American tour.Not so good is the parallel universe for productions that aren't courted by Broadway. Instead of being too hip or too smart or just too specialized to compete as mass entertainment, these productions get lost - as if stuck down on the farm team or not invited to sit at the grown-ups' table.

When theatergoers can go to the Broadway TKTS booth right now and buy deeply discounted seats for many Broadway shows with stars, the competition is just too tough. Even "Forbidden Broadway" - Off-Broadway's beloved institution for theater satire - is closing in January after more than 25 years.There is also the problem of transfers for shows that don't belong on Broadway. To my mind, this includes "[title of show]," a clever but limited four-actor, single-set, self-referential musical that's much loved by theater insiders. The piece has struggled to find an audience and just announced an Oct. 12 closing. There are rumors of a transfer back to an Off-Broadway commercial house, which is where the sketches belonged in the first place. On the other hand, hey, the Tony committee just announced that the two creator-performers are eligible for best-actor nominations.

Douglas Aibel, artistic director of the Vineyard, has seen two of his co-productions - "Avenue Q" and "[title of show]" - meet different fates on Broadway. He doesn't regret the latest transfer, but laments the loss of the commercial Off-Broadway theaters where, not so long ago, Vineyard's productions of Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" and Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" had long happy runs. Today, for better or worse, they would have gone instead to Broadway.

"The climate for commercial Off-Broadway is quite perilous," he says, "So many small projects are being lost in the shuffle."Managing director Elliot Fox, whose Primary Stages has an upcoming Broadway transfer of Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate," agrees. "There's a lot of noise on Broadway right now. Some is warranted, the rest is just about marketing power."Nerves are raw, obviously, over the trickle-down effects of Wall Street on donors and ticket buyers. But for now, there's a bubble to enjoy on Broadway. Nobody wants that to burst.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.


The Off-Broadway Question from The Playgoer
by (Abigail Katz)
by Abigail Katz Newsday Theatre Critic

Linda Winer asked the other day, "Where's Off-Broadway?" This is not a new question, nor one with an easy answer. Commercial Off-Broadway seems to barely exist anymore, at least in the way we like to think of Off-Broadway as a "rebellion of theater as mere mass entertainment" to quote Winer. Of course there are shows that are characterized as Off-Broadway, ranging anywhere from BLUE MAN GROUP, STOMP, and FUERZA BRUTA to ADDING MACHINE and GONE MISSING. But it has become harder and harder for a commercial Off-Broadway show to be viable in the current New York theatre landscape.

As Winer points out, one of the reasons is that many commercial houses in this category have closed in the last few years. But another very important reason is simply the economics of a commercial Off-Broadway show. If the cost of an Off-Broadway show can run in the neighborhood of $1 million, and the show is playing in a house with a capacity anywhere from 100-499 seats, and ticket prices are lower than Broadway (although not by much these days- some are as high as $80) how does such a production make back its money and continue running? Advertising budgets for these productions don't approach those of a Broadway show, so in a competitive market it's even harder to get the word out. Even rave reviews and awards enjoyed by shows such as ADDING MACHINE (one of the best productions I've seen in years) didn't necessarily result in more audience. Under these circumstances, how is the Off-Broadway that we long for to exist?

Another contributing factor to the situation is the rise of so many non-profit theatres in last couple of decades. Their productions are for the most part also characterized as Off-Broadway, and because their structures as non-profit institutions differ from those of a commercial production, they are more able to take the risks that we associate with the Off-Broadway of yore. The main difference of course is that the runs of these shows are limited, and if they get enough attention and audience the shows will transfer, but these days more likely to a Broadway production than an Off-Broadway one simply because it makes more economic sense. In many cases, productions in the non-profit theatres are "enhanced" by commercial producers with idea of a transfer beforehand, and the non-profit production is essentially a pre-Broadway tryout.

So what is the answer? Do we accept that the adventurous Off-Broadway is a dinosaur, and that the term now means mini-Broadway, non-profit limited runs, and entertaining performance art? Not necessarily. There are producers, like Scott Morfee of Barrow Street Theatre who continue to produce and support interesting and excellent work. The Cherry Lane and Minetta Lane Theatres still exist, as do the Daryl Roth and the DR2. New World Stages may be a little bit more mainstream, but it is a home for shows that are appealing but wouldn't work well in a Broadway house. Co-productions may also be a way to make the idea work, so there is shared risk. The fact is Off-Broadway is hard to define, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Right now it is experiencing growing pains, and it will be a while before we know what the future holds for this important aspect of New York theatre.



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