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.

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