Melba’s Theatre-Letter from New York (II)



Ab Mitte der 1950er war das Off-Broadway-Theater in New York DER Ort für innovatives, relevantes, zeitbezogenes Theater. Heute finden Experimente vorwiegend auf dem
non-profit Off-Off-Broadway statt, Off-Broadway hat seit 20 Jahren nur noch eine Handvoll Hits erlebt, und die Gelder, die in die Stücke gesteckt werden, spielen sich kaum je ein. Melba LaRose, Produzentin/Regisseurin/Autorin und unsere Theaterkorrespondentin aus Big Apple untersucht den Niedergang einer Theaterkultur und fragt Off-Broadway Produzenten: Warum bleibt ihr trotzdem dabei?

Dreamers & Gamblers

The Maverick off-Broadway Producer

Why does anyone do anything that is hard?  We love it.
When I feel that swell in my heart that I feel when I see one of my shows,
there is nothing anyone could tell me to get me NOT to produce it . . .
I don’t care how hard it is.

Ken Davenport, producer Altar Boyz, The Awesome ‘80s Prom, and more

Szenenbild: "The Awesome 80s Prom"

We are gathered here today to memorialize off-Broadway, formerly the home of the daring, the innovative, the cutting-edge, and an incubator for Broadway.  Off-Broadway came into being in the 1950s to combat the commercialism of the Great White Way.  It was devised as an alternate space for emerging creative artists, many of whom then went on to Broadway fame.  The first big success was the 1954 revival of the Brecht/ Weill musical, Threepenny Opera. Audiences looking for exciting, wild, intelligent entertainment headed swiftly and in droves for off-Broadway.  And then, as often happens, off-Broadway became a commercial zone and in the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s, off-off-Broadway evolved as the arena for innovative theatre and emerging artists.

Today, off­-Broadway still takes some chances, but nonprofit theatre has replaced it as an incubator because nonprofit carries with it a whole different set of rules.  If you’re nonprofit, you can get donations for your project and the donor gets a tax deduction.  If you’re commercial off-Broadway, you have to get investors, who rarely – if ever – get their money back.  Good luck next time around!  In its heyday, off-Broadway spawned at least one big hit per year.  Only a few shows have broken even or made a profit in the past 15 years and those have been, for the most part, non-union spectacles like Stomp, Blue Man Group, Fuerza Bruta:  Look up! If you’re nonprofit, you plan a limited run and stars are happy to be in it because 1) it may go to Broadway and 2) they can schedule film/TV work before and after the run.  If you’re commercial, an early closing is a death notice.  There is no bottom line to protect you.  Still, there is that mystique of being the maverick, running your own show, doing your own thing, and answering to nearly no one.  Ken Davenport, who has broken even or made a profit thus far on four shows, also takes on the positions of Writer-director, General Manager, Advertising & PR person, and others, often without remuneration.  (Sounds like my life off-off-Broadway, but he has more on the line!)  Other off-Broadway producers, such as Alan Schuster (Stomp, Play Dead, and a litany of other shows), also take on the position of General Manager to save their shows money.

Szenenbild aus "Play Dead"

Szenenbild aus "Play Dead"

As discussed in my initial theatre-letter, off-Broadway expenses are practically that of Broadway and the houses are smaller.  There are only a handful of theatres at 499 seats (the maximum), and others at 399, 299, and 199 seats (minimum is 100).  Some of those, like the Little Shubert Theatre, require you to employ their staff and crew at union wages.  The union also comes into play in regulating playtimes.  There is an 8-performance week off-Broadway, just like Broadway.  However, since off-Broadway is no longer a destination for tourists and avid theatre-goers, where do you get an audience for the off-nights?  If you go non-union, you can get around these restrictions. Play Dead, currently at the Players Theatre in the Village (248 seats) is having a hard time getting audience because it is not in mid-town.  However, because it is non-union, the producers are able to adjust the schedule for special performances for school groups and the like, as well as do workshops in Las Vegas, which helps the show’s coffers.  Teller (of the famed magic team Penn & Teller) is involved in the show (hence, the Vegas connection).  The producing team is Alan Schuster and Cheryl Wiesenfeld.

Die Produzenten mit Regisseur Teller in der Mitte

When you have produced for as long as I have, you realize that you might as well produce what youlike, because like it or not it will take at least 2 years to get anything from vision to reality.  And if it you don’t love it, it won’t sustain your interest while you navigate the twists and turns to your goal.
- Alan Schuster

So, why do you do it? It’s a question I often hear as a producer of off-off-Broadway, but it’s also being asked now of off-Broadway and even Broadway producers.  Recently, I watched a panel on TV of renowned off-Broadway producers, presented by the American Theatre Wing.  They declared themselves Dreamers & Gamblers.

Bob Ost

Soon after, I attended a live panel of off-Broadway/ Broadway producers, courtesy of Theatre Resources Unlimited, a service organization headed up by Bob Ost.  His story is that years ago, he thought about all the people he knew who were looking to connect:  producers, writers, actors, and others.  On a lark, he invited them to his apartment for a kind of artistic “mixer” – and 30 people showed up!  For 19 years now, Bob has continued gathering people together through panels, audition events, staged readings series, and other ventures.  Membership is $60/ year and you get all that plus a weekly e-newsletter and Bob’s endless databases of connections.  We swear he never sleeps.  The recent panel was dubbed “What Are We Going to Do about off-Broadway?” and it could not have been more timely.

I produce theatre ‘cause it nourishes and excites me.  I can’t imagine living without it! As crazy and difficult as it is, theatre fulfills my own personal mission… changing the world one theatergoer at a time.
– Cheryl Wiesenfeld, producer Play Dead, The Exonerated, and more

Off-Broadway is not a destination

My cousin Jeanne adores theatre.  She was coming in from Connecticut and wanted to see, as usual, a big Broadway show, especially a musical.  She was very surprised when I suggested The Fantasticks, but then said, Sure, it’ll be a new adventure – I never think of going to off-Broadway! The show did not disappoint.  She was amazed at the writing, directing, and highly professional performances.  It turned out I knew the Musical Director Robert Felstein because he’d worked on our Vaudeville show a few years ago.  After we chatted with Robert, she insisted on congratulating the actors and was speechless when I told her how much they made (and this is a union show), especially since they do 8 performances a week.  However, her first question upon entering was, Now, how many does this theatre seat? [199]  We got in for $20 each, taking advantage of a discount program where $20 tix are available 20 minutes before curtain for two weeks out of the year.  Not a bad deal, huh? — unless you’re the producer.  Pat Addiss (Spring Awakening, Little Women, 39 Steps, and many more):

"The Fantasticks

For the most part, off-Broadway costs too much money to make a profit.  Broadway costs more, but percentage-wise you have a better chance of making a profit, as that is what tourists want to see.  Few tourists are adventuresome enough to see off-Broadway.  Currently, my only off-Broadway show is The Fantasticks [Snapple Theatre].  Reason to keep it opened… it is the longest-running musical in the world, 50 years young and an icon.  As long as Tom Jones (co-creator with Harvey Schmidt) is alive, I will endeavor to keep the show open.  For my most important show A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL, it is WAY OFF-Broadway.

We will tour to different cities every year, where we will make money with little risk, as we have the rights for 40 yrs.  Eventually, we will bring a production to Broadway. This year we will start in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and close in Chicago.

Bottom line is we have to say what we have to say – how?  We become the mavericks and create a production company or nonprofit theatre with our own vision.  However, audiences do not show up automatically as they would for commercial Broadway or nonprofit institutional theatre.  My first venture many years ago, Cityscapes 3, drew small audiences and I very quickly went bankrupt.  Now, even with the noble mission of taking professional theatre to under-served audiences, I have to apply for funding for individual projects.  But since I write with the audience in mind (their issues, their concerns, their needs), it is generally not hard to get project funding.  There is very little funding for general operating expenses these days.  That was all but eliminated with the scandal of the Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit in Washington and the entertainment provided by some of our more outrageous performance artists, e.g., porn star Annie Sprinkle peeing, douching, and inviting audiences onstage to view her cervix.  There were people who felt they didn’t want their contributions used for such things.  Thus began the debate over free expression and public funding.  In the end, there was a switch from general op to project funding.

Protestversammlung für Robert Mapplethorpe

In the ’90s, I was privileged to work with the New York Street Theatre Caravan [Obie Award-winner for Sustained Excellence in Theatre].  They were funded for general operating expenses throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and the ’80s by the National Endowment for the Arts and other major government and private foundations.  In 1989 when artistic director Marketa Kimbrell made a slip in an interview with a comment that was quite Leftist (the interviewer promised not to print it), she woke up the next day to a cancellation of company funding from a major supporter (one of our largest foundations).  She couldn’t even get them on the phone.  The National Endowment and others continued their support, but thenceforward the company had to make the shift from general op to project funding applications.  As Bob Dylan said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Canaries in the Cave

So, why do I do it? Lately, this question has been posed by high school and college students applying to intern with us.  And, my immediate response is:  those grateful faces of audiences who never knew what theatre was, that it could speak to them, that it could make them think, that it could be empowering and validating – that recognition that someone actually cares.  Artists are the canaries in the cave.  We herald tsunamis of devastation and exaltation.  We only want people to listen and we tend to forget about the cost of birdseed and saving ourselves.  It’s not that we’re suicidal or that we wouldn’t like to make money, although sometimes it looks that way.  It’s that we’re passionate about what we do – and seeing just one beaming face of one person who “got it” means more than all the birdseed in the world.

Melba LaRose
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