By Shay Gines
From the Off-Off-Broadway section of Theatre World v66 2009-2010 Season
For years Off-Off-Broadway (OOB) had been disregarded as disposable theatre: easily made and easily dismissed. “Theatre of Now” was an undesirable title because -- for decades -- most OOB productions were world premiers that hadn't existed prior to their debut and then, once they closed, were gone forever. Basically they only existed in the present or the “now.” What’s more is that cost and union restrictions prohibited video taping or recording rehearsals or performances, and media coverage was inconsistent at best, so even archival records are virtually non-existent.
Though it began as a pejorative, the current generation of OOB artists is redefining the label “Theatre of Now” and embodying it on a number of deeper and more significant levels.
OOB productions rarely have investors or large sponsors. While modest budgets present certain challenges, the lack of commercial obligations allows these artists uninhibited artistic freedom, while creating an environment in which experimentation is encouraged. There's a unique energy and excitement that permeates this community. It's a playground for ideas and creative expression. One artistic experiment spurs on another, building a forward momentum that pushes the boundaries of the art form itself. OOB is at the forefront of developing new American theatre and is consistently ahead of the curve in terms of themes and styles. Perhaps more importantly, it's shaping an entire generation of theatre artists.
Every day, theatre artists from around the world flock to New York City in the hope of finding an artistic home. Nearly all of those artists, at one point or another work OOB. There are an estimated 40,000 artists working in this sector every year. The independent and entrepreneurial spirit of OOB, where the artists are the producers, appeals to many. It is also one of the only theatrical communities where emerging and seasoned artists alike are empowered to create their own work and maintain ownership of their creations. Because of this, OOB is producing thousands of new plays every season. OOB is literally shaping what's happening “now” and inventing what's happening “next” in American theatre.
It is no coincidence that the qualities of the “Now Generation” are reflected in what is currently happening Off-Off-Broadway. OOB provides a conducive environment for this generation's ambitions, and it's not surprising they're increasingly finding an artistic home in a community uniquely set up to support them. Simultaneously these young artists are infusing the community with the excitement of their sensibilities and aspirations. In essence, the Now Generation is now creating the Theatre of Now.
One of the defining characteristics of the “Now Generation” is the ubiquity of instant gratification. These artists have grown up being able to fulfill their consumer needs almost immediately, via the internet. Unlike Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, nimble OOB productions can go from an idea to a fully realized presentation within weeks, days or sometimes even hours.
Another characteristic of this generation is the need for a personal or customizable experience, and for multiple points of entry into that experience. The agility of OOB allows for them to be elastic, to tackle current events, ideas and issues, providing commentary and catharsis for what's happening right now.
This year's productions eagerly took on political and popular hot button issues from across the country. Wreckio Ensemble's production of Bail Out: the Musical pondered what would happen if the government had bailed out the arts the same way it bailed out the banks. Rootless: La No-Nostalgia took a personal look at immigration in America. In Hatching: Eat Your Eggs, playwright Will Porter compared a futuristic American health care system to a prison and questioned the government’s responsibility to care for its citizens. Meanwhile, Sauce and Co. brought us I Can Has Cheezburger: The MusicalLOL!, personifying the cats of the popular website icanhascheezburger.com that has become such a cultural phenomenon.
You will also find companies such as The New York Neo-Futurists who perform Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind 50 weeks a year and have made it a part of their mission to present works that have current significance, akin to the “living-newspaper.” Every week the ensemble writes and incorporates several new short plays based on current events, while older plays are removed from rotation when they are no longer relevant.
One of the distinguishing attributes of our age is the ever-evolving communications and media landscape. With new technologies being introduced on a daily basis, many in the performing arts find themselves grappling with the question of where they fit in. They wonder how their medium - a live human experience - can remain relevant when technology has pervaded nearly every aspect of our contemporary world.
However, instead of being at odds with new and advancing technology, OOB welcomes and embraces it. The internet has become the great equalizer for many small business endeavors, helping them reach a much larger customer base. They can present a professional appearance, and provide a virtual storefront on a 24 hour basis with a relatively small financial investment. These kinds of qualities make emerging technology a great match for the OOB community.
With websites now being standard for any legitimate business venture, OOB professionals are always among the first to experiment with new technologies like MySpace, FaceBook, Skype, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc. These mediums are ripe for creatively ambitious and technologically savvy artists, eager to discover inventive ways to reach audiences.
Artists can now draw people in to productions with online previews, with interviews of the cast and crew through YouTube, or skyped live. Blogs written by those involved provide a personal window into the experience of creating a production, encouraging audience interaction and feedback. Performances are broadcast live on the internet, reaching a much larger audience then their physical performance space could ever accommodate. And links to all of these can be posted on the production website, on FaceBook and on MySpace pages, sent out to friends and family through personal emails, announced on Twitter and then forwarded and retweeted again and again.
What’s more, where marketing used to be the sole responsibility of the producer, now each of the artists can have their own FaceBook page, website or Twitter account. Everyone involved can be emissaries of a production, forwarding information to their personal network with the click of a button. These highly advanced marketing methods provide multiple points of contact, can potentially reach tens of thousands of audience members across the world, and none of them cost the producers or the artists themselves a single cent.
With performance, rehearsal and meeting space at a premium in NYC, these technologies are also becoming essential production tools. Collaborators across the city – or across the country for that matter - can meet, schedule, and share and forward information virtually without shelling out the cash to rent a room or spending the time or money on travel.
OOB artists are also using the technology to affect more significant media coverage of this sector. Established media sources originally provided coverage, reviews or listings for OOB productions on a limited, “if space is available” basis. If less editorial space was available, OOB was the first to be cut.
OOB’ers recognized early on that fewer people are reading newspapers and prefer to get their news from online sources. Websites, many of which were developed by OOB artists themselves, such as OffOffOnline.com, Theasy.com or NYTheatre.com are dedicated to promoting and providing reviews of OOB productions. Artists’ blogs are gaining notoriety and helping community members garner new fans, and reach like-minded independent theatre practitioners. They also help create a more cohesive sense of community, which in turn strengthens the influence of the community as a whole. As these sites and blogs began to grow in popularity, gaining legitimacy, they encourage more traditional media sources such as the New York Times or the Village Voice to provide more online coverage of OOB productions.
Furthermore, these innovative artists are not only using these technologies to reach out to the rest of the world, they're actually incorporating them into the theatrical form itself. Take for example: The Internationalists present works where several artists from different countries simultaneously skype in to participate in the performance. Gyda Arber’s groundbreaking play Suspicious Package uses customized portable media players to lead six audience members on an interactive journey. Each audience member takes on a role in the play, and instructions and contextual movies guide them through the production as they solve the mystery, giving each audience member a truly unique and personal theatrical experience that could not have existed without the technology. Kathryn Jones’ production Better Left Unsaid is performed live in a theatre, while simultaneously being live-streamed via the internet.
Off-Off-Broadway is the Theatre of Now. It reflects the contemporary American society. It embraces emerging technologies and continually reimagines how they can be integrated into the art form. It provides a home for emerging artists and seasoned professionals to experiment and revolutionize the theatrical experience. It can include re-envisioned Shakespeare, world premieres from new or established playwrights, troupes from around the world, groundbreaking avant-garde theatre, revived American classics from the 1950’s and new musicals. They all have a place in the OOB arena. From 30-seat black box solo performances to huge outdoor amphitheatres presenting Gilbert and Sullivan; from one-night readings to productions that have been running for years, OOB provides a home for them all. These shows are performed year round in theatres of all sizes through out all of NYC’s five boroughs. The only universally-defining characteristics of this community are the dynamic creative energy, tenacious spirit, modest budgets and intense devotion to the art.
The tiny independent theatre movement that began over 50 years ago continues to grow in the number of artists, the quality of work, the fearlessness you will find in these intimate venues, and the audiences who discover and rediscover this amazing community every year. It will persist and transform and embody what is happening now in American theatre.