Off-Broadway, a vital part of New York theater, feels the squeeze
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Off-Broadway, a vital part of New York theater, feels the squeeze
Signature Theater, an important Off Broadway institution, in New York, Nov. 30, 2023. The small theaters that help make the city a theater capital are cutting back as they struggle to recover from the pandemic. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NYZ`.- New York’s nonprofit Signature Theater has three modern performance spaces designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, a long history of cultivating and championing major playwrights such as Edward Albee and Lynn Nottage, and a board chaired by Hollywood star Edward Norton.

What Signature doesn’t have this fall are plays. The company, a mainstay of the off-Broadway scene, closed its most recent production in July and is not set to start its next show until the end of January.

Even as Broadway claws its way back from the coronavirus pandemic, New York’s sprawling network of smaller theaters, many of them noncommercial in both tax status and taste, is struggling.

“This is the hardest season yet,” said Casey York, president of the Off-Broadway League, citing the combined effects of smaller audiences, shifting philanthropic patterns, rising wages and costs, and labor shortages at a time when the emergency government assistance that helped many theaters stay afloat through the lengthy pandemic shutdown has largely run out. “There is an incredible squeeze.”

Why does it matter? For decades, off-Broadway theater in New York has provided a home for adventurous work and emerging artists, a place where mounting a show still costs less than buying an apartment and scoring a ticket was affordable on a middle-class income. A city study that was released in 2019, just before the pandemic, found 748 small theater organizations operating off- and off-off-Broadway, ranging from itinerant companies doing avant-garde work to some of the nation’s most influential arts institutions.

Off-Broadway theaters stage works with hungry newcomers and experimental artists as well as famous actors. Just this month, screen stars including David Hyde Pierce, Aubrey Plaza, Michael Shannon, John Turturro, Dianne Wiest and Constance Wu are featured in off-Broadway shows.

“We’re providing cultural experiences for New York residents, jobs for people who work in these organizations, and spaces for artists to develop work,” said Coco Killingsworth, the chief experience and impact officer at Brooklyn Academy of Music, who is co-chairing a new live performance industry council set up by Mayor Eric Adams to explore how the city might assist struggling arts presenters.

The biggest sign of trouble in the nation’s theater capital: fewer productions. During the last week of October, 31 shows were running off-Broadway, down from 51 during the same week in 2019, according to figures compiled by the Off-Broadway League. And box office grosses at the theaters that share their data with the league plunged to $1.3 million that week, down from $2.2 million the comparable week before the pandemic.

That means fewer jobs. Actors and stage managers logged 15,773 workweeks on an off-Broadway contract during the most recent theater season, which ended in May, down from 18,175 workweeks in the final prepandemic season, according to the labor union Actors’ Equity Association. And so far this season, off-Broadway employment has dropped further.

There are plenty of indications that, given the right motivations, people are willing to get off their couches, spend money and gather in crowds. Think of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour; the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” movies; the Manet/Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and any number of hot restaurants.

Even in the theater world, there are signs of hope. In the long-ailing arena of commercial off-Broadway theater, two musical comedies, the spoofy “Titanique” and the spooky “Little Shop of Horrors,” have become sustained hits. In the nonprofit world, a handful of off-Broadway shows, including the Alicia Keys musical “Hell’s Kitchen” and the behind-the-music drama “Stereophonic,” have been sold out; “Hell’s Kitchen” is transferring to Broadway.

Two for-profit companies with strong track records in entertainment are making bets on off-Broadway. Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon, leases the Minetta Lane Theater and is producing a steady stream of shows there that it also records to stream on its audio platform. And A24, the buzzy indie film studio, acquired the Cherry Lane Theater this year with plans to convert it into its own live performance space.

But some long-running off-Broadway hits have faltered: The percussive “Stomp” shuttered last January after a 29-year run, while the immersive “Sleep No More” will close in January after a 13-year run. And philanthropic giving — the primary source of revenue for many nonprofit theaters — is, at best, flat, even as production costs are rising.

“It feels like the traditional off-Broadway audience has gone away — those older women who went out to see a lot of theater are a few years older, a little less excited about being in crowded places, and found alternative entertainment options,” said George Forbes, executive director of Lucille Lortel Theater. “So everyone is trying to figure out what is the new audience, and how do we attract them?”

As production costs outpace box office revenue and philanthropic giving, there is widespread concern about the health of the system. Just a few weeks after Adams set up the performance industry council, he called for funding cuts to city agencies including those assisting the arts; a trip to Washington by nonprofit theaters seeking federal aid has not led to action.

One can feel the desperation in fundraising pitches: Last month, on Giving Tuesday, many were blunt about their challenges. “Help Keep Off-Broadway Alive!,” pleaded Theater Row, a nonprofit-run complex just west of Times Square.

“We’ve watched for years the cost of making theater rise at a pace that our revenue can’t match, and our inevitable problem is that without raising ticket prices, money has to come from some other source which has not yet been identified,” said Adam Greenfield, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons. “It’s a moment not for us to get sad and wring our hands and despair, but to ask the tough questions about how the culture has changed and what theater’s place is in it.”

Driven by necessity, more theater leaders are now finding new ways to cooperate with one another, sharing research (four companies — Ars Nova, MCC Theater, the New Group and New York Theater Workshop — are jointly surveying audiences) and even real estate (Playwrights Horizons is letting the Movement Theater Company use some of its space rent-free).

“I used to feel like I lived under a rock called Soho Rep, and now I’m in much more of an ongoing conversation with my peers, because you can’t go through massive change without drawing on your community,” said Cynthia Flowers, a director of the 65-seat downtown theater.

The reduction in productions is widespread. Signature, which cites busy artist schedules as one reason it went dark this fall, is planning only three productions this season — one less than last year — because of higher production costs. “It’s costing us more to do three plays this winter and spring than four shows last year,” said Timothy J. McClimon, the company’s executive director. (Meanwhile, Signature has been renting out its stages.)

Similarly, Vineyard Theater is staging two shows, rather than the previous three. “In scaling back, our focus has really been on producing shows that are nothing like what people can see on Netflix or HBO,” said Suzanne Appel, the theater’s managing director. “We hope that pays off, and that folks will say, ‘Wow, that was radically different from what I get on my couch.’”

New York has had fewer institutional failures than many other cities. But there have been some: New Ohio Theater, an experimental company in the West Village, closed after three decades in operation; Metropolitan Playhouse, a small East Village company with a focus on overlooked American work, suspended productions after 31 seasons; and the Lark, an organization established in 1994 to support new play development, folded. Several large organizations, including BAM and the Public Theater, have been forced to lay off staff and cut back on programming.

“The institutions are fighting for survival,” said Tony-winning director Rachel Chavkin, who is currently helming “Scene Partners” at Vineyard. “Everyone is in a financial spasm, but that is combined with some incredibly thrilling art that is bringing people back.”

Sade Lythcott, the chief executive of National Black Theater, said she saw the moment as “less of a crisis than an opportunity to look at our value set.”

“Audiences formed new patterns, they are not coming back in the way that they used to, and, this may be controversial, but there’s also a lot of natural attrition,” she said. “Where you see a lot of the pain is in larger organizations that feel too big to fail. They’re cutting staff, and it is devastating and indicative of a shift in audience behavior, but there’s also a right-sizing that’s happening, because of what was perhaps an unsustainable relationship with boards and philanthropies.”

The city’s vast network of small, independent theater makers — those working with audiences even smaller than those at the off-Broadway companies — is hurting too.

“We are now approaching a landscape where the work has become so challenging, our members are just moving out of New York to smaller urban areas where there’s a lower cost of living,” said Aimee Todoroff, managing director of the League of Independent Theater. Despite all the underutilized commercial space in post-pandemic New York, she said, it has become increasingly difficult for small and independent companies and artists to find affordable rehearsal and performance space.

Theater makers say they are looking with hope, as well as trepidation, toward spring.

“I’ve been doing indie theater here for 25 years, and for 25 years I’ve been hearing people talk about the death of theater,” said Erez Ziv, the managing director of Frigid New York, a theater company. “I don’t see that happening — there won’t be a death of theater until there’s a death of our culture. It’s just changing, and unfortunately in times of change not everybody can hold on.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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