Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Bottom Line

Contributed by Shay Gines

I majored in business marketing before shocking my parents and changing my major to theatre. However there are many lessons from my business classes that apply to what we do in theatre.

With this in mind, I want to talk about the bottom line. For many Fortune 500 companies, the bottom line is about earnings. While Indie Theatre creators are acutely aware of how much money is or isn’t in the bank, the bottom line for us is often about something different.

Like many of us working Off-Off-Broadway, I wear/have worn many hats. Each of those hats – sometimes worn one at a time and sometimes many at once – have brought a different perspective and a different goal. Based on these various perspectives, I believe that a production has several different bottom lines and after some considerable thought, I have narrowed it down to five.

Of course any business major will tell you that it is not enough just to set the goal, but you must also identify the criteria for measuring if the goal was accomplished.

So to those ends here are my 5 bottom lines of a theatre production:
  1. Creative Success: Does the production have artistic merit?
    I measure if this was accomplished by how I myself feel about the project as well as measuring feedback I get from the creative team and the audience (and this includes reviews from critics). If the feeling is that the production: entertained, engaged, communicated, touched, challenged and/or awed an audience (and the specific criteria might change from one production to the next) and it was well executed, then I consider it to be a creative success.
  2. Personnel Fulfillment: Are the members of the production team fulfilled by their involvement?
    Each person will have their own motivation for being involved. Sometimes it is creative success as mentioned above. Sometimes it is in pursuit of interpersonal relationships or maybe it is just cold hard cash. The trick is to discover the motivation of each of your team members and then create an environment that allows them the opportunity to reach their goals. This is sometimes the most difficult bottom line to gage or accomplish. However if you manage to accomplish this, you will have an enthusiastic group of collaborators who will continue to grow and reenergize one another. Feedback from the production team and whether or not they want to work together again are indicators of meeting the criteria. Please note that I also consider the safety and well being of the production team to be a part of this bottom line and I measure that by whether or not the production is completed without injury.
  3. Press/Marketing Success: Did the production garner significant press and audience numbers?
    There is a strong case for separating these into 2 different categories; however I see them as an extension of one another. You will note that I did not include “good” or “positive” in the description. Creative success, above, deals with quality. Here I am talking about quantity only. How many listings were we able to place? How many websites or media outlets picked up the story? How many postcards were distributed or posters hung up or emails sent to how many people? AND, how many tickets were sold? While the goals and measuring whether or not you succeeded is all about the numbers, figuring out what did or did not appeal to press or potential audience members and a formula for reaching them is the tricky bit. Some of it is based on shear numbers, some on how the story was crafted and some on personal relationships.
  4. Environmental Conservation: Is the production as environmentally friendly as it could be?
    This one is new to the list and was added because of the fantastic blogs about Greening your Production that were posted here in May of 2012. Really these impressive bloggers layout the goals and criteria for success better than I ever could, so please check out these posts:
  5. Income Success: Did the production raise/earn the desired amount of money?
    Again this is about the numbers. As much as we protest that “the art is not about the money,” sometimes it is about the money. How much you make or lose or raise on a production can determine whether or not you are able to do the next production. You could win the lottery or a wealthy patron might bequeath you a million dollars, but setting goals and devising a game plan to reach those goals will probably be more successful.

Each of these bottom lines will have a higher or lower priority for individual productions or producers. However I still feel that it is a good exercise to think about each and honestly evaluate what success would look like for you for each of these areas.

Do you have another bottom line and if so, how do you measure whether or not you successfully achieved it?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Off-Off-Broadway: A Year of Transition

By Shay Gines

From the Off-Off-Broadway section of Theatre World v67 2010-2011 Season

The 2010-2011 season was one of transition for the Off-Off-Broadway (OOB) community. A number of prominent OOB pioneers passed on, the community witnessed some of their most beloved and long-established performance venues shuttered, and many companies and artists found themselves at a crossroads; choosing to either relocate to more economically and artistically enticing cities or remain in the Big Apple and face an environment that is pushing independent theatre artists further and further from the heart of the Theatre District.

With the passing of Ellen Stewart, Lanford Wilson and Doric Wilson (no relation), OOB lost some of the most renowned artists who helped build the vibrant and kinetic Off-Off-Broadway community.

Ellen Stewart, the infamously outspoken and opinionated Founder and Artistic Director of La MaMa, passed away on January 13, 2011. Her memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was filled with friends, family and many of the artists whose lives Ellen had touched. “There is a full house here today," said La MaMa Board President, Frank Carucci, "which would have made Ellen very happy.” During her 49 years as Artistic Director, La MaMa grew from a tiny basement cabaret to a two-building arts complex on East 4th Street; from a modest company presenting the work of friends and relatives to an iconic, groundbreaking institution that is known around the world. Stewart was a cornerstone of the OOB community and became known as OOB’s “Mama.” Her passing was acutely felt.

In March of 2011, OOB lost Lanford Wilson. One of the most prolific playwrights to come from the OOB community, Wilson began his career at the CaffĂ© Cino. He also worked at La MaMa and many other independent theatre houses. It is at the Cino that Wilson met and began work with his life-long collaborator, director Marshall Mason. Together they forged a 40-year partnership that resulted in some of the most heartfelt and celebrated plays of their generation. In 1969, Wilson, along with many other playwrights and directors from the OOB scene, founded the Circle Repertory Company. While he had many successes, including receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, he remained an adamant supporter of independent artists, saying, “We all share a common experience, a common identity.”

Only two months later, in May 2011, gay rights activist and playwright Doric Wilson passed away. Wilson is believed to be the first resident playwright of the CaffĂ© Cino. According to playwright Robert Patrick, Wilson’s work helped "establish the Cino as a venue for new plays, and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off-Broadway." Many of Wilson’s plays documented the underground Village scene of the 50’s and 60’s, including the Stonewall riots that ignited the “Gay Liberation” movement in New York City in 1969. Wilson later went on to found TOSOS (The Other Side Of Silence), the OOB company dedicated to illuminating the gay and lesbian experience. It is not surprising that Wilson’s plays about the origins of the gay rights movement found their legs in OOB. Shared characteristics like the fact that both sectors work outside mainstream America and have struggled for legitimacy made OOB the perfect conduit for these plays that sought to challenge the status quo. 

Each of these extraordinary artists and leaders imprinted their unique characteristics on to the DNA of the OOB community. They infused it with their own enthusiastic integrity and tenacious “Do It Yourself” spirit that are hallmarks of the community today. Their influence, guidance and support will be dearly missed. And while no one will ever take the place of Ellen Stewart or Doric Wilson, the younger generation of OOB artists is already grooming outspoken advocates and community leaders to address current challenges and discover new artistic avenues.

One of the most immediate challenges facing the OOB community is a lack of performance space. Over the last decade, OOB has lost more than 25% of their performance venues across the city. These spaces have either been demolished to make way for new developments (housing or commercial developments) or repurposed into non-performance venues. This distressing trend sets OOB companies and artists on a chronic cycle of displacement that successively pushes them further and further from the heart of the Theatre District, and often out of reach of audiences.

It has long been believed that this is a natural part of urban renewal. Artists find cheap space in depressed areas of town, create a theatre, and invest in the space. Audiences come to performances, generating evening foot traffic, which decreases crime and vandalism in that area. The audience members also spend money in the neighborhood, which increases the income of the local businesses, who in turn invest more in their stores and the neighborhood, which helps bring in more customers and audience members. More businesses open shops, property values increase, rents go up and soon the artists can no longer afford to keep their space in a neighborhood that they helped revitalize. It is a pattern that is too familiar to the OOB community. It’s the classic gentrification story, but it has a detrimental effect on long-term sustainability of culture development in New York City.

On August 31, 2010, the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street ended its 29 year run and closed its doors forever. In 2008, the owners of the building, who had always been supporters of the theatre, found themselves no longer able to keep up with the financial demands of the maintenance and preservation of the building and decided to sell. The new owners had no desire to rent to an independent theatre on a shoestring budget. And with that, one of the most fertile and beloved Off-Off-Broadway venues was gone. The Ohio was home to many theatre companies and some of the most influential OOB artists of our time and it will be sadly missed.

Center Stage’s issues began in 2008 when rent for their space dramatically increased. It was particularly difficult timing for the 15 year old company, which was feeling the adverse effects of the recession. Sponsors, corporate funding and donations started to dry up and fewer OOB companies were able to pay sublet rental deposits up front. Budget cuts and layoffs did not make up the financial gap and after a hard-fought year of just trying to retain the space long enough to honor their remaining sublet agreements, Center Stage closed up shop in the spring of 2011.

Founded in 1955, Theater Ten Ten, was New York City's longest continuously operated Off-Off Broadway theater. For 55 years this company presented shows in the theatre of the Park Avenue Christian Church. However, in the winter of 2010, the church ministry began reevaluating its mission and use of its facility. As part of that effort, Theater Ten Ten was dissolved in the summer of 2010 and the venue is no longer available for use by the theatre community.

These are only a few examples of some of OOB’s most established and much-loved spaces that are now boutiques and offices. While these losses are hard to bear, the OOB community is persevering. The company who ran Center Stage, Developing Artists Theater Company, is currently seeking new space. Theater Ten Ten reemerged as Theater 2020 with performances at various locations in Brooklyn. And in the fall of 2011, Soho Think Tank, manager of the Ohio Theatre, took over the old Wings Theatre space in the Archive Building, and the New Ohio Theatre was born.

While these individual companies continue to seek opportunities, the community as a whole has recognized sustainable real estate as a persistent problem and is looking for innovative ways to address it. The OOB community is working hand-in-hand with Community Boards throughout the city to support a proposal that would offer tax relief to landlords who rent space at below market value to not-for-profit performing arts organizations. The idea has promise and has garnered support from all 12 of Manhattan’s Community Boards and several elected officials. Further work is yet to be done, and support from the outer boroughs is still required. However, if passed, this tax abatement could have long term benefits for OOB with respect to its ability to retain facilities and provide a more stable environment for artists.

Not only does OOB endeavor to create a more favorable rental environment, it is also seeks opportunities to purchase facilities outright. OOB companies like Horse Trade Theater Group are looking to purchase spaces that can then become permanent fixtures of the community and not dependent on sympathetic landlords. Horse Trade manages several spaces in the East Village, including Under St. Marks. Horse Trade’s non-exclusive rental agreements provide very inexpensive performance space to many OOB productions. So when the owners of 94 St. Marks Place announced that they were putting the building on the market, the community rushed to endorse the purchase of the small black box theatre in the basement. The demonstration of support “from the community helped us garner a great deal of press, and hardened our landlord’s resolve to not just sell at whatever price he could get,” said Managing Director Erez Ziv. While Horse Trade can not afford to purchase the entire building, the outpouring of support helped them to broker a deal with the owner. The owner extended Horse Trade’s lease until 2019 and agreed to consider turning the building into a condominium which would allow Horse Trade the opportunity to purchase the theatre space only. These discussions are still preliminary and anything can happen in the next 7 years, but this was a decisive step in acquiring a permanent space.

The loss of performance space is not the only challenge facing artists in New York City. In an article for Crain’s Business; entitled “Artists fleeing the city,” journalist Miriam Kreinin Souccar reported that “artists have long struggled in New York, moving into rough areas, gentrifying them and then getting forced out. But as the city has gotten increasingly expensive, there are few such neighborhoods left to move to, forcing a growing number of artists to abandon the city.”

OOB artists are no strangers to hard times. While it is not easy being the proverbial “starving artist,” they understand the struggles of pursuing an artistic dream while trying to make ends meet. Living and working in one of the most culturally rich and artistically fertile cities in the world is worth the effort. However, over the last few years that struggle has become increasingly arduous. Housing costs continue to rise, day jobs are harder to come by, costs of living have increased, and the city is offering fewer incentives for artists. Meanwhile, other cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia are actively luring artists with competitive arts-friendly initiatives.

Part of the allure of New York City is the artistic community. 40,000 artists strong, OOB is one of the largest arts communities in the world. These artists pay taxes, support local businesses, are civically active and perhaps most importantly contribute to the identity of the city. Can city officials and corporate entities stop the flight of artists before the creative talent pool is depleted? Are current cultural development initiatives enough to keep artists in the city? It is difficult to imagine the Big Apple without an independent theatre scene pushing the boundaries of American Theatre. However, it would not be such a bad alternative to see those same artists taking their DIY, OOB brand of theatre and spreading it across the nation. Perhaps that is the next big transition for this community.

This year the OOB community was met with change and loss. However, OOB is constantly growing, evolving and adapting. Transition is a part of the communal identity and there is no doubt that the result of that transition will be worth purchasing a ticket to see.

Resources for this section: OffOffOnline, NYTheatre.com, Innovative Theatre Foundation, TheatreMania

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Off-Off-Broadway: Theatre of Now

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.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Off-Off-Broadway: of Art and Politics

By Shay Gines

From the Off-Off-Broadway section of Theatre World v65 2008-2009 Season

With nearly 1,800 unique productions, the 2008-2009 season was an active year for Off-Off-Broadway (OOB). It was also a year of change and self-discovery that found the current generation of OOB practitioners grappling with community identity and efforts to unite disparate organizations and artists.

One of the most exciting aspects of OOB is the great variety and diversity that it provides to New York City. This community includes well-seasoned professionals who have dedicated themselves to this brand of non-commercial theatre for years, such as Judith Malina, Ellen Stewart, Penny Arcade, Richard Foreman, Israel Horovitz . . .  the list goes on and on. It also provides opportunities for emerging artists to hone their skills and experiment with their craft. A variety of theatrical genres and styles can be found, from Shakespeare to performance art to classic American plays by renowned playwrights to premieres of new works by first time playwrights. Many define OOB based on the number of seats in the performance space (ninety-nine seats or less), but the reality is that OOB productions are performed in theatres of all sizes, in both indoor and outdoor venues, uptown and downtown, and throughout all five of New York City's boroughs. It offers New York City's theatregoers an abundance of choices.

However, this undefined array of theatre poses an interesting challenge for OOB practitioners because it is difficult to define what exactly constitutes OOB. Audiences are sometimes wary of productions in this sector because they are not quite sure what to expect. As a way of addressing this, there is a movement within the community to rebrand "Off-Off-Broadway" as "Independent" or "Indie" theatre. Community leaders are split on this issue. Defenders of the “indie theatre” brand cite the successful growth of the “indie film” and “indie music” industries due in part to the clear, strong branding of those sectors over the last decade. They believe that changing the nomenclature will allow audiences to rediscover this scene on their own terms. Others argue that changing the name is dismissive of a rich cultural history and heritage and may divide the community into splinter groups and factions, rather than strengthening it.

This debate is far from over and may continue for years. But in the meantime, this community can be characterized by a scrappy, tenacious nature, its inventive creative choices, and of course its shoestring budgets. Modest budgets are a hallmark of the community and can be both a curse and a blessing for OOB artists. While limited financing presents difficult challenges, especially in terms of finding affordable performance venues and production values, it also gives the artists a unique freedom to pursue their artistic vision, and allows them ownership of the work they create. This unfettered creativity is also a defining characteristic of the OOB community.

The recession of 2008-2009 found an already cash-strapped OOB scrambling for resources. Granting organizations reduced funding, and corporate sponsorships and personal donations dried up. In addition, a surprising number of OOB performance venues shuttered. The election of Barack Obama, a community organizer with a devotion to the arts and grassroots movements, excited a political interest within the community. These political and socioeconomic pressures had a significant influence on the activities of OOB and spurred a community wide political activism.

This activism was initiated at the Second Indie Theater Convocation held in July 2008. Hosted by the New York Theatre Experience (www.nytheatre.com) and the League of Independent Theater (www.litny.org) this meeting gathered members of the community to begin an ongoing discussion about the most important issues facing OOB and to create task forces to address these issues.

In September 2008 four theatres in the state-owned Archive Building were informed that their rents would be raised by as much at 500%, forcing these not-for-profits to evacuate the premises. This news acted as a sort of rallying cry for a community already poised for advocacy and activism. Thanks to the dedicated work of Community Board 2 and the attention of concerned and outspoken members of the OOB community, this issue was brought to the attention of political leaders. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn noted that, "It is all too familiar a story in the Village to hear about longtime neighborhood fixtures being forced out because they can no longer afford to stay in the communities they made great." An agreement was eventually brokered between the landlord and the organizations that allowed these theatres to keep their spaces. This was a huge victory not only for the four theatres in jeopardy and their neighborhood, but for OOB as a whole. It brought attention to a distressing trend affecting small theatres across New York City, and it demonstrated the effectiveness of an organized community effort.

This percolating political energy culminated in February 2009 when the Community Boards that serve Manhattan hosted a joint public forum addressing the state of small to mid-sized theatres in New York City. Hundreds of attendees crammed into The Players Club to show their support for the community and participate in the discussion. Speakers such as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer reaffirmed that theatre, and especially OOB, is an important part of what makes New York City vibrant. "The 45 million tourists are not coming here to see our big buildings,” he said. “The reason they come is because they want to see our art and our talent." Other speakers such as Ben Cameron, program director of the Doris Duke Foundation, Virginia Louloudes of A.R.T./NY, Paul Nagle from Council Member Gerson's office, and Tamara Greenfield from Fourth Arts Block echoed this sentiment. They impressed upon the community board members and elected officials that small arts organizations are the foundation of NYC's cultural community.

This meeting resulted in a commitment from the community boards to make OOB a priority in their neighborhoods. Over the next few months, the community boards made good on their promise by backing legislation that supported local theatres and inviting members of the OOB community to attend and contribute to their meetings and resolutions.

One of the key issues identified during the public forum was the need for reliable statistics about the OOB community. While OOB is one of the largest arts communities in the country, with tens of thousands of artists and hundreds of theatre companies, there exists virtually no statistical data about it in the public realm. Two organizations are working to change that, the Lower Manhattan Arts Leaders and the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation.

Eleven downtown arts organizations united to form a group called the Lower Manhattan Arts Leaders, which meets weekly to strategize and exchange ideas on how to best support one another and convince policy makers and funding organizations to invest in their arts, companies, and neighborhoods. They pooled their individual numbers: annual audience statistics, financial records, operating budgets, etc. The results showed that these eleven organizations had an aggregate operating budget of $15 million and served over 275,000 audience members each year. This collective effort set an example of how cells of organizations could join together to create compelling data on a neighborhood level. If this trend continues to grow, with these kinds of efforts being duplicated on a grass roots level across the community, the combined results could serve as an economic impact indicator for the OOB community.

The Innovative Theatre Foundation (www.nyitawards.org) launched a five-part research program to collect information about the OOB community and make it publically available. The first report, Statistical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets, published in April 2008 examined how OOB producers were spending their production budgets. The study found that OOB spent approximately $31 million on productions alone. This number does not include administrative or operating budgets, incidental spending, or in-kind contributions. It is believed to be the first publically released examination of OOB production financials. A second report, Study of Off-Off-Broadway Performance Venues was released in December 2008 and tracked OOB theatres over a five-year period. This study showed that the OOB community had lost a significant number of theatres in Manhattan–over 25%–to real estate development projects between 2003-2008. Three additional reports are forthcoming, including a demographic study of the OOB participants (to be released in August 2009), a study of OOB audiences, and ultimately a study of OOB’s cultural and economic impact.

For decades the OOB community has been living by the motto of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Born from the necessity to stretch every dime as far as it can go, OOB designers and producers have become very adept at reimagining otherwise unwanted materials. It is a common practice to reuse sets, costumes, and props to find treasures in rubbish piles and to recycle bits and pieces of previously used materials into entirely new creations. While this is nothing new to OOB artists, it has suddenly become the height of fashion to Go Green. OOB theatre companies have therefore found support and camaraderie from environmentalists. The first eco-friendly theatre in New York was an OOB space: The Wild Project in Alphabet City. Other companies have found unexpected funding sources from environmental organizations not only for green renovations and capital projects, but also for artistic and organizational support of green business practices. There is green in going green, and many of these companies have garnered extra media coverage due to their environmental efforts. It is a win-win situation, and trends suggest that more OOB companies will be looking for ways to expand and promote their eco-friendly efforts.

Are the politics of the day reflected in the artistic work that we see on OOB stages? Yes, but in unanticipated ways:

The last few years has seen an increase in the number of OOB theatre festivals. These include: the New York International Fringe Festival, the FRIGID Festival, the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the Strawberry One-Act Festival, the Turnip Festival One-Act Play Competition, the undergroundzero festival, the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and the annual Brick Theatre Festival. There are in fact so many festivals that it is sometimes difficult to track them.

These events have jam-packed schedules presenting back-to-back performances late into the night. They are a smorgasbord of theatre, offering a variety of themes and theatrical disciplines for the audience to choose from. They provide the companies and artists involved a low-cost venue in which to present their work, albeit with limited production values (due to the shared space and incredibly quick transition time between productions–sometimes thirty minutes or less). They also provide built-in communal support from the festival's fellow artists. Festivals are a manifestation of the political efforts of the OOB scene: community building, maximizing the utilization of valuable facilities and sharing them, and making the most of every available resource.

On the flip side, the reduction in resources has resulted in fewer large-scale productions, specifically musicals. The song and dance nature of modern American musicals often requires proper venues for rehearsal and performance, with pianos and/or other expensive equipment. Musicals generally have larger casts, which means more costumes, props, and other production materials, which ultimately means larger budgets. Those musicals that have graced OOB stages this past season have been greatly scaled back, with smaller casts and a more intimate nature.

While reflecting on the early years of OOB and the Caffe Cino, playwright Robert Patrick recalled exploring "new directions, such as ‘pop’ shows using comic books as scripts." This trend of comic book theatre has resurfaced in recent years. Plays based on fanboy ideals have become a prominent trend in OOB. Companies such as the Vampire Cowboys, Nosedive Productions, Commander Squish Productions, Piper McKenzie Productions, Charles Battersby, and GeminiWorks have all produced works based on superheroes or comics. This has also been a common trend in popular film and television programs, and in the fall of 2009 Spider-Man the Musical will premiere on Broadway. These productions, often set in depressed worlds filled with injustice and corruption, explore how ordinary citizens pushed to the brink discover super abilities–powers they can use to change the world in which they live. These plays mirror an American psyche inundated with corrupt and dishonest politicians, engaged in an unpopular war, steeped in an unstable economic environment, and feeling helpless to change their circumstances. Comic book theatre provides fantasy where we see ourselves as stronger and better equipped to face the challenges of uncertain times. However unlike the superheroes of the ‘50s and ‘60s, today's protagonists are darker and much more complicated; often saddled with unlikable character flaws, rejected by society, or given to egotistical tendencies that lead them into the very corruption they are fighting. This reflects a more skeptical mindset of modern artists who are distrustful of the pursuit of a perfect world and have witnessed the corruption of those with power.

2008 was a year of transition for the United States. An economic recession and rising unemployment rates saw consumers saving rather than spending. Home foreclosures left thousands of families and communities in shambles. Major American industries were brought to their knees as bedrocks of their communities were forced into bankruptcy. A heated presidential election asked voters if they were ready for change. The country was poised on a precipice between economic collapse and guarded recovery. It is not surprising that OOB’s 2008 trajectory was so influenced by the economic and political environment.

The dramas and scandals of the headlines from the past year were significant and will inevitably work their way into the dramas and political satires played out on the stages of OOB. But perhaps even more significant was the way in which the community reacted to these pressures. While it took many hits from these external sources, the OOB community’s impulse to band together and strengthen communal ties helped it weather the storm better than expected, once again proving the staying power of the artists and companies that make up the Off-Off-Broadway community.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Theatre World

By Shay Gines

Since 1945, Theatre World has been documenting Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. It has been continually published for 68 years, offering the most comprehensive and definitive record of what is happening in American Theatre. It has become a leading archival resource that is referenced everywhere by scholars, students, casting directors, producers, and other industry professionals on a daily basis and is included in the Library of Congress.

John Willis (the original creator of Theatre World) and Benjamin Hodges the editors of Theatre World recognized the importance of our community and felt that it deserved a place in this archive. In 2008 they began to include Off-Off-Broadway. They asked me to write the narrative about the important events and trends of our sector for that season. I was honored.

The next year they asked if in addition to the narrative, I could also compile the listings for Off-Off-Broadway productions. That is an enormous task and one that I do not take lightly. I make it my goal to get as many listings as possbile. I scour websites like NYTheatre.com, OffOffOnline.com, TheatreMania.com, NYITAwards.com. I reach out to hundreds of OOB companies and artists and spend hour-upon-hour tracking down as many credits as I can for as many productions, readings, workshops and festivals as I can find.

Now that Mr. Willis has passed on, we are lucky that Ben and new editor Scott Denny continue to carry on the work and are even more committed to supporting Off-Off-Broadway.

It is so important that our community is represented in records like these that help to bring to light the importance of this sector and demonstrates, the number of productions, the variety, the innovation and the determination of the work being created in our community. And it is work that I am very proud of.

Over the next week, I will be posting the narravtives that I have written for the OOB section for the last few years. I hope you will find them insightful.