by Abigail Katz
Newsday Theatre Critic Linda Winer asked the other day, "Where's Off-Broadway?" This is not a new question, nor one with an easy answer. Commercial Off-Broadway seems to barely exist anymore, at least in the way we like to think of Off-Broadway as a "rebellion of theater as mere mass entertainment" to quote Winer. Of course there are shows that are characterized as Off-Broadway, ranging anywhere from BLUE MAN GROUP, STOMP, and FUERZA BRUTA to ADDING MACHINE and GONE MISSING. But it has become harder and harder for a commercial Off-Broadway show to be viable in the current New York theatre landscape.
As Winer points out, one of the reasons is that many commercial houses in this category have closed in the last few years. But another very important reason is simply the economics of a commercial Off-Broadway show. If the cost of an Off-Broadway show can run in the neighborhood of $1 million, and the show is playing in a house with a capacity anywhere from 100-499 seats, and ticket prices are lower than Broadway (although not by much these days- some are as high as $80) how does such a production make back its money and continue running? Advertising budgets for these productions don't approach those of a Broadway show, so in a competitive market it's even harder to get the word out. Even rave reviews and awards enjoyed by shows such as ADDING MACHINE (one of the best productions I've seen in years) didn't necessarily result in more audience. Under these circumstances, how is the Off-Broadway that we long for to exist?
Another contributing factor to the situation is the rise of so many non-profit theatres in last couple of decades. Their productions are for the most part also characterized as Off-Broadway, and because their structures as non-profit institutions differ from those of a commercial production, they are more able to take the risks that we associate with the Off-Broadway of yore. The main difference of course is that the runs of these shows are limited, and if they get enough attention and audience the shows will transfer, but these days more likely to a Broadway production than an Off-Broadway one simply because it makes more economic sense. In many cases, productions in the non-profit theatres are "enhanced" by commercial producers with idea of a transfer beforehand, and the non-profit production is essentially a pre-Broadway tryout.
So what is the answer? Do we accept that the adventurous Off-Broadway is a dinosaur, and that the term now means mini-Broadway, non-profit limited runs, and entertaining performance art? Not necessarily. There are producers, like Scott Morfee of Barrow Street Theatre who continue to produce and support interesting and excellent work. The Cherry Lane and Minetta Lane Theatres still exist, as do the Daryl Roth and the DR2. New World Stages may be a little bit more mainstream, but it is a home for shows that are appealing but wouldn't work well in a Broadway house. Co-productions may also be a way to make the idea work, so there is shared risk. The fact is Off-Broadway is hard to define, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Right now it is experiencing growing pains, and it will be a while before we know what the future holds for this important aspect of New York theatre.