Going Off On Off Off Broadway: Get Your Act Together

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In the financial world, when a market shifts to a new equilibrium based on current conditions, it’s called an adjustment. Sam Theilman’s recent Variety filing that Off Off Broadway is getting hit especially hard lately, with a reported 25 percent venue closing rate shouldn’t surprise anybody: that, too, is an unfortunate adjustment.

Off Off has been off for quite a while, now. It should be a place where new, innovative work and artists (actors, directors, playwrights, designers) are created, nurtured, and taken to the next level. It has become a place where umpteenth productions of long-dead, overproduced playwrights, schlocky borscht belt shows, and “experimental” theatre go to die. The blame for this — like everything else to do with any current fiscal crisis — belongs to everyone: patrons, artists, producing theatres.

The categorization is slightly muddled: Off Off Broadway theatres are generally noted as those that have less than 100 seats, while theatres which are 100 seats or larger, but that don’t operate on the scale of their larger (thus: larger minimum union contracts) Broadway brethren are Off Broadway. It used to be about location, but (mostly) isn’t anymore. More often than not, though, it’s like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it. Larger theatres sometimes have smaller spaces (sub-100 capacity), but you’re still paying relatively larger prices to see these shows, too.

Off Broadway theatres are trending towards a few things: corporate sponsorship and underwriting, subscription bases, and putting film and television actors who have little to no theatre experience in their productions to attract ticket sales. The trend is even modifying towards playwrights: this will be the second season Atlantic Theater Company has an Ethan Coen play in one of their lineups. Granted: the last one was good, and Atlantic has given plenty of new playwrights their chance. But how’re younger, less affluent theatergoers going to attend a $60 show “Off Broadway” (two-thirds the cost of a Broadway ticket)? And whatever happened to non-profit theatres giving back to the communities (both inside and outside of theatre) they’re trying to reach out to? And how the hell is Off Off Broadway supposed to compete with that?

Well, they could stop producing mediocre revivals, for one thing. Stop with the borscht belt shows, stop with the vanity projects. Get business-savvy, and build a brand: PS122, Vampire Cowboys, Ars Nova, La Mama, St. Ann’s — these are all theatres that have managed to stick it out, and give Off-Broadway a run for their patrons by using edgy, daring theatre with younger, vibrant casts and productions that aren’t just good, but that are opportunities to push the medium forward (with things you can’t do in larger theatres). But without significant successes, they’re going to be next, too.

Then again, they could also do what everyone else is doing, and ask for money from the government. Not that the future of Off Off Broadway is necessarily vital to our country’s economy, but it is to the cultural cell count of New York: without the better corners of it, New York and theater at large will take significant, hard-edged losses.

Let’s hope this is the last cultural adjustment we have to see for a while.

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