Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Robin Rothstein.
As a longtime playwright, Off-Off-Broadway theatre reviewer and recent co-producer of a FringeNYC play, OOB, or the indie theatre sector, has always held a meaningful place in my life. I would not have reached certain milestones in my writing career, or have gotten to know so many creative, insightful, passionate writers, actors, directors, designers and producers were it not for the existence of OOB. OOB has been so important to me that, as of last year, I became involved with my local community board to do what I could to help raise awareness of the current crisis facing small theaters throughout New York City as more and more are forced to close their doors. As a member of Community Board 2, Manhattan, I co-authored a resolution that was eventually ratified by all 12 Manhattan community boards. In broad strokes, the resolution proposes a real-estate tax abatement initiative that would ultimately benefit small to mid-size non-profit theatres and performing arts organizations. Along with others (including Shay Gines and Nick Micozzi of this very organization!) I continue to work on next steps to bolster this resolution in ways that it can eventually become legislation.
In concurrence with my participation in the OOB sector, I also work full-time in the commercial part of the theatre industry here in New York. I’ve worked on the business side of theatre in various capacities over the years, but most recently on the commercial touring side. Similarly to how I feel about the assets I’ve garnered from participating in the OOB sector, I am also so grateful for being able to work in the commercial sector of the theatre industry. I have acquired such amazing skills and have become a member of a wonderful community of smart, exuberant, hard-working administrators and commercial producers and tour presenters. While working in commercial theatre, I have also inevitably picked up a lot of hard-core knowledge and awareness with regard to show costs, ticket pricing, marketing challenges, the tastes of the larger mainstream audience, and have regularly had drilled into my head the singular measurement of what ultimately makes a successful show – making a profit. With that, I have also developed a keen sense as to which shows being produced on Broadway or Off-Broadway will likely work (Read: which shows will sell tickets and make money!) and which shows likely won’t, both in New York, and on the road.
It is all this knowledge and awareness, now permanently wired into my cerebral cortex, which has recently begun to present a dilemma for me as it relates to my relationship with OOB.
OOB has so many challenges – from showcase code limitations, to a lack of adequate funding and a lack of broad enough support, to the small size of the theaters and their dispersed, sometimes out of the way locations, to an absence of consistent branding due to the vast spectrum of unique work being produced across the sector’s many OOB companies. It’s nearly impossible for any producer, theatre company, or artist working in OOB to make a profit, let alone earn a living. Also, while so many of the shows are excellent and well-received by audiences, I can now usually tell that OOB is often the end of the road for many of these pieces, at least as far as New York is concerned, despite whatever hopes, aspirations and good intentions there may be to move them on to the next level. To move from the showcase code to a mini-contract is a huge financial leap, and one that may not always be a financially sound one to take for an OOB show, despite the level of critical acclaim and strong audience reception. Also, once produced, it can sometimes be hard to get another producer or theatre company interested in the work since it has now had a world premiere.
So, now that I have this knowledge and awareness scorched into my brain, I find myself somewhat stymied about how to balance (and separate?) the commercial and OOB sectors in a way that allows me to remain enthusiastic about, and emotionally invested in, my own dramatic writing and nascent producing aspirations. Knowing what I know about the challenges, the long odds, the time commitment, and the inevitable financial investment with the likelihood of little, if any, financial return, I sometimes find myself asking, “Why commit to OOB? What’s the point?”
And yet, even knowing all the aforementioned liabilities, I find myself imagining how empty I would feel if I did not participate in the OOB sector, or if, God forbid, the OOB sector disappeared! Not having a community where people are free to take spectacular artistic risks and express themselves in ways that they likely couldn’t in more “mainstream” arenas (Read: the commercial theatre sector), would indeed make New York City, a sad, sad place, not to mention leave a hole in my own life and heart.
And therein, perhaps, lies my answer?