Grassroots theater in turmoil

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Paul Adams of EAT, workshops his most recent play on stage. Photo: Kimberly Ammiano

Paul Adams of EAT, workshops his most recent play on stage. Photo: Kimberly Ammiano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emerging Artists Theatre (EAT) on West 28th Street is supposed to be a place where “playwrights can turn their idea into a fully-realized production,” according to owner, actor, writer, and producer, Paul Adams. But at the moment the group operates out of its third smallest home in six years, a corner of the workspace that belongs to the TADA children’s theater. Spikes in rent forced Adams out of two previous locations, on 42nd Street in 2007 and on 45th Street in 2009.

His voice cracked and wavered when he talked about it. “I’m sorry, it just still gets to me when I think about losing 45th Street, he said. “Everyone involved with EAT helped me fix the space, we made it ours, and it was just an incredible disappointment when we lost it.”

Rising rent prices fueled by gentrification, from Chelsea north to Hell’s Kitchen, have forced several off-off Broadway (OOB) spaces out of these neighborhoods, once known as their birthplace.

The trend was the primary cultural affairs concern on Community Board four’s most recent agenda, citing a 2009 study conducted by the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation (NYITF) and Columbia University that reflects an almost 30% closure rate between the years of 2004 and 2009.

CB4 reports, “We believe this performance venue closure rate has increased since completion of the study,” which is of concern because “the money generated from these industries provides employment and maintains the artistic life of the city.” The board asked the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) to re-examine funding options that allocate more grants to the Cultural Development Fund (CDF), in order to support more OOB spaces.

In fiscal year 2013, the DCA allocated $155.6 million to 923 Cultural Institution Groups (CIGs) and CDF groups, according to DCA employee Ryan Max. The pending FY2014 budget allocates $156.1 million in funding for 920 CIG and CDF groups. Max described this number as “robust,” but it covers less than EAT’s annual $200,000 budget per group.

Members of the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation, created about ten years ago to “bring recognition to the great work being done in the New York City OOB community, to honor its artistic heritage, and to provide a meeting ground,” according to the group’s website. Members find the loss of OOB spaces “distressing,” according to founder Shay Gines. In an update of the 2009 study, Gines reports that 32% of the OOB spaces in Soho and Chelsea are “defunct,” either vacant or used for luxury apartments and shops, with 25% of the total OOB spaces “shuttering” over the last ten years.

This trend “sets OOB communities and artists on a chronic cycle of displacement,” Gines said, “that successively pushes them further and further from the heart of the theatre district, and often out of the reach of audiences.”

Adams said that as recently as eight years ago, owners of OOB spaces were able to find decent theatre space in the area for about $1,200 to $1,500 per week. Now, he said, lowest rates begin at about $3,500 per week.

Some groups, unable to find temporary quarters, have had to close. In 2010, the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street ended its 29-year run, according to Gines. In 2008 the owners of the building “who had always been supporters of the theater” decided to sell. “The new owners had no desire to rent to an independent theatre on a shoestring budget,” Gines said. “And with that, one of the most fertile and beloved venues was gone. It was home to some the most influential OOB artists of our time and it will be sadly missed.”

Center Stage Theater, once located on West 21st Street, was forced to close in 2011, faced with a rent increase of almost 200%. The theaters housed in the Archive Building (Wings, Theatre for New Audience, Interborough Repertory Theater, and Epiphany Theatre) were also forced to close in 2009 when their rent increased by nearly 500%.

However, because of a 2010 intervention from then City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and CB2, these theaters were eventually able to re-open and are currently active. The spaces are rented for four dollars a square foot, with a 3 percent annual increase to cover inflation, according to an article on the NYITF website.

Colony Music on 49th Street, which served as a music staple for OOB performers for 64 years, got no such help and lost its space in 2012 because of a rent increase. Anne Elisabeth Poe, a 22-year-old actress from Montgomery, Ala. who recently moved to New York to pursue a career in musical theatre described this closure as “inexcusable.”

“If the arts are going to progress and continue to bring new ideas to our world, then we have to support them with both emotional and financial means,” she said. “This requires effort on behalf of the government as well as individual patrons. We must all take responsibility if we want to further the arts in this money-driven world by making conscious efforts to contribute in tangible ways.”

Drawing on her own experience in “Enron,” a 2010 OOB show, Ellyn Marsh, now a cast member of the Tony award-winning Broadway show, “Kinky Boots,” worries that economics are stifling independent theater. “Because of how expensive everything has become, OOB shows and performers do not get the chance to find their legs,” she said, referring to the time needed for a small show to build word of mouth and find an audience.

“Enron,” a show by British playwright Lucy Prebble, tells the story of “American Corporate greed and white-collar crime,” according to Playbill.com, but crumbled just 12 days after its New York opening.

“Unfortunately, the small, independent shows will most likely never see the light of a Broadway theater,” she said. “People don’t want to take chances and there is just no way that independently-funded shows can get people to pay the $200 dollar-a-ticket-price that it costs to fund shows.”

Adams says, simply, “greed is the problem” behind a new set of priorities. “People want the most bang for their buck,” he said, “So, rather than investing in the arts, the city is re-gentrifying…Why not invest in the ability of people to be creative now and in the future,” he said.

Marsh noted that the emphasis on “star-power” as essential for even major Broadway productions is an indication of an increasingly cautious environment. She said that “Kinky Boots” is lucky to have the “dream team” of Cyndi Lauper, music and lyrics, and Harvey Fierstein, book, behind the production. “How to Succeed in Business broke $1 million when they recruited Daniel Radcliffe to join the production,” she said, referring to the star of the Harry Potter films. “That show never would have made that kind of money had it not had star power behind it.”

As an active member of the theater arts community for over 30 years, and a Chelsea resident, playwright and theater arts professor at Drew University, Chris Ceraso feels that the indie theater spirit endures, despite the obstacles, and will always prosper. “Rent is always the problem,” he said. “But people have to have faith that there will always be a grassroots need for innovative theater, that subsidies will be put in place, and there will always be a group of people with their hearts in theater.”

He said that every year, large groups of people move to New York intending to make their lives in theater. “The current generation is not the least bit shy about saying ‘I wrote this, and I want the world to see it,’” he said. “They’re very industrious and they can help carry out New York’s theater history. Regardless of financial circumstances, visionary artists will find a way.”

In response to CB4’s OOB funding request, the DCA reports that the city will support the construction of multi-purpose arts facilities. “The agency’s capital portfolio currently allocates $685 million to 427 projects at 198 organizations over the next four fiscal years,” according to Max, including the A.R.T/New York Theatres; the Toshiko Mori-design project (two flexible theater spaces of up to 150 seats);  and the MCC theater (an OOB space that produces edgy, innovative work). It will also support the existing 52nd Street Project, which matches inner-city kids with professional performers to create original theater.

But the geographical center may have shifted: Gines said that the most successful OOB work has been happening on the Lower East Side, which is attractive because of lower rent rates and “non-exclusive rentals,” which allow several productions to use the space at once. The LES now houses 19% of OOB theaters and presents 32% of OOB productions. “Conversely,” she said, “40% of OOB theaters exist in midtown, but only 30% of productions can afford the spaces.”

Still, Gines agrees with Ceraso: the sorts of people who pursue OOB theater are not daunted by circumstance. “Their ability to transform these challenges into new creative opportunities,” is a trait unique to the indie-theater performer,” she said. “A lack of affordable performance venues has lead to both surprising venue choices and inventive collaborations.”

She says that festivals are on the rise, and that apartments, basements, and even Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market have become the sites of well-attended performances.

“Art is happening everywhere, at every level,” said Marsh. “Yes, funding is limiting what people can see and it’s unfortunate, but artists just have to consider their price point and use what they’ve got to get what they want. These people can see and create, they’re going to be just fine.”

Poe, who is still new to the business, is a little less hopeful. “If we allow the closure of smaller-scale performing arts spaces to occur with little or no outrage,” she said, “then we are headed for a world void of creativity and genuine inspiration.”

She allowed that there is “true art” in larger-scale productions, but worries that allowing smaller theaters to close places too much emphasis on the size of art, rather than the quality. “Bigger theaters tend to cater more towards what the guy with the big check who pays for the production wants,” she said, “rather than expressing truth and wisdom in innovative ways that are inspired and not forced, but truly discovered by the artists.”