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Acting in Hard Times: Off and Off Off Broadway (By Elizabeth Burke) March 6, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics, Theater.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Get Off Off Broadway!

The recession of 2008 (Depression of 2009?) has crippled many industries, put millions of people out of work and turned a harsh light on the nefarious workings of the Big Banks, the Auto Industry, Wall Street and their overpaid “Pasha” like leaders. Leaders, who even when they fail, leave with enough money to possibly buy Spain, which they will soon enough destroy. Now, during a recession, most people, smart people, start to cinch their belts, cut out luxuries such as dining out, vacations they cannot get to by car, and, at least in NYC, they stop going to the Theater.
During the Great Depression, the government created the Federal Theater Project, part of the brilliant and highly successful “Big Government” created Works Progress Administration (WPA.) This program sought to put non-working actors to work (are you listening Equity???.) It was so successful, within 3 years, 25 million people attended a live theater performance all over the country. For many, it was the first time. It created a whole generation of theater goers, who then took their kids and grandkids.
But by the Twenty First century we have all but sent live theater packing. It’s Movietime baby! If there are no car chases, sexy sex scenes, or severe decapitations of a few rude Americans on holiday, why bother watching? Broadway, that divine stretch of Disney related musicals, is still trying to lure you and your money into their jeweled lobbies with fantasy, old favorites and occasionally a really great story. (STOP reading and go immediately to see August: Osage County.) But now, going to the theater is considered l luxury and why not? Most Broadway tickets start at $100 for a crappy little seat up in the mezzanine in the back. But with a family of four, dinner, parking/train/bus, this just became your mortgage payment. Unless you are in foreclosure.
Now, New York is a big theater city. Broadway is synonymous with bright lights, big stars, lavish musicals, and lately, Disney. A place to go to forget your daily troubles and simply enjoy a great show, sing along to the songs and have some fun with family and friends. But the recession has taken its toll. In January alone, over a dozen shows have pulled their curtain for the last time. Blockbusters such as Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Gypsy, Young Frankenstein, and Spamalot (damn, even Clay Aiken couldn’t save it.) Broadway is looking a little like Main Steet with shuttered storefronts and empty stages, and greasepaint gathering dust.
But there is a world of theater that can boom in tough economic times. That is the Off and especially Off Off Broadway productions. While Off Broadway theaters are housed all over the city, 48% of Off Off Broadway can be found below 14th Street. Active since the 1960’s when the Greenwich Village’s Café Cino first spewed forth the works of Tony and Pulitzer winning playwrights such as Doric Wilson, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Robert Heide, and Lanford Wilson. This stepsister of Broadway has been ruling downtown theater for over 50 years, and currently has about 500 active theater companies producing approximately 1700 shows annually. Huh! Who would have thought!!
Off and Off Off Broadway now has a chance to gain some of these uptown audiences and box office receipts are showing that is exactly what is happening.
In a bold move last month, NYC & Company, the city’s tourism marketing agency, implemented a Two for One promotion called “On the House”, which strived to re-direct typical theater goers to over 30 Off Broadway productions. While it did not do anything directly for Off Off Broadway, it reasons that once you get a theater lover to go Off, it’s only a matter of time before they take one more step to Off Off. Now I would love for NYC & Co. to acknowledge Off Off productions, but I am pragmatic by nature. I think this is a great start and by riding the coattails of such great theater as Uncle Vanya, Blue Man Group, and the classic Naked Men Singing, Off Off has a chance to gain a whole new audience. And honestly, I think they like going home and bragging about their adventures below 14th Street, it makes them look tough, cool, and artsy. Watch them start to wear more black!
These are the “little shows that could” Here you can find ticket prices topping out at $50 for a front row seat, or any seat as this is an egalitarian, every ticket is equal kinda world. That’s right, we are the liberal left leaning equality theater! This is where you can find stars of the future, because, eventually everyone comes up through these ranks. Well, except those in Hollywood who ran straight to the movie studio, forgetting to actually learn their craft. I’m talking to you Julia Roberts and Jeremy Piven.
The New York Innovative Theater Awards recently completed a survey of Off-Off Broadway theatre companies and found that 22% of their budgets are under $5000. HYPERLINK “http://www.nyitawards.com/survey” http://www.nyitawards.com/survey. They show in smaller (sometimes hard to find) theaters, the production staff usually works for credit and actors rarely get paid, unless they are union and even then, their pay may a subway card! (I remember getting paid $100 for a full run and thinking, I’m finally a paid actor!) So these shows are built to be lean and mean. They are able to withstand hard economic times as they do not rely on ticket sales to keep the show afloat. They can take the dramatic risks that Broadway cannot afford, therefore continuing the tradition of being the place to experiment with new work, make political statements, and where you see subject matters Broadway wouldn’t dare go near. We can offend with immunity! Or even enlighten with laughter.
As we enter into the second decade of this new century, Off and Off-Off Broadway continues to provide the much-needed alternative to boom-or-bust Broadway. As many of the regular theater goers are starting to realize there is vital and, at times better, theater going on downtown. The hope in our bright, shining, and underpaid actor eyes is that they will remember the performance and appreciate that they can see a show and even have enough left for a nice dinner out. While I do not believe there is anything like the Federal Theater Project in President Obama’s Stimulus Bill (OK, I have only gotten to page 798, I may find it yet,) a micro-Stimulus plan such as what NYC & Company have created is a great start. So the next time you are thinking of going the theater, please consider the gems of the city down below that invisible barrier of 14th St. Hell, I’ll even stay to chat after the show! (I bet Julia didn’t.)



1. Melissa - March 6, 2009
2. Melissa - March 6, 2009

What a fuck is this

3. Liz Burke - March 6, 2009

Melissa! What are you trying to do?

4. Gene Ruffini - March 7, 2009

Rlight on, Liz — I teach a drama class as a way to buy ink for my printer to run off plays to show OOB (and use you exploitively) and I tell my darlings that if they want extra credit they should see an OOB show and bring me the program. Some of them actually do. And they say they like it. Yoicks!! Keep on trucking, baby. Love your blog. Gene Ruffini

5. Stephanie Schwartz (TRU) - March 8, 2009

Great article, excellent website,and blog. GO, GIRL, GO.

6. Colleen - March 9, 2009

Well said as usual, my friend. Although, I would argue that there are plenty of off-off Broadway theatres above 14th Street as well…check out the 30s on the West Side!

7. Circle T - March 9, 2009

You’ve got a new career in blogging!

8. Liz Burke - March 9, 2009

Hi Gene! Well, please feel free to exploit me all you want! Seriously, exploit me.

Colleen! You are totally right, there are tons of great Off Off in mid town, I was just citing what I read in the IT Awards study. Everyone should go to http://www.theatermania.com to get all the listings!

Thanks everyone for supporting my neophyte scribbling!

9. CatrinkaS - March 11, 2009

I am late to the party (having been in Scotland when this posted…), but I am impressed with this and will circulate it to others. Persuasive and well-written. Thanks, Lizzy! Keep it up!

10. l - March 11, 2009

Welcome back! Nice “I was in Scaaahtland” mention you jetsetter! Please spread the work to everyone in the ATL!! Missed you!

11. Cynthia - March 19, 2009

Enlightening and very well put, my friend! I will share this with everyone I know in your neck of the woods, planning to be in the area and even others!

12. Liz Burke - March 20, 2009

Cynthia, are you saying you plan to be in NYC? When? email me back via yahoo.

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