Characterized by an animated exchange of ideas, the American Theatre Wing's most recent Working in the Theatre seminar took on the heady topic of "Off-Broadway Today."
The panel discussion, held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York on Thurs., Feb. 10, featured six notables from the Off-Broadway scene: Tisa Chang, artistic/producing director of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; Loretta Greco, producing artistic director of Women's Project & Productions; Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York; Eduardo Machado, artistic director of Intar Theatre; James C. Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop; and Neil Pepe, artistic director of Atlantic Theater Company. Thomas Cott, who helped establish Lincoln Center Theater, among other accomplishments in the noncommercial arena, moderated the 90-minute symposium.
The focal point of the discussion was defining the mission of not-for-profit theatre and the impact of economic realities -- as well as cultural factors -- on that mission.
Louloudes opened the seminar with an overview of the current Off-Broadway world, pointing out that funding has not bounced back from the recession, the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still linger (keeping audiences at home), and the cost of real estate continues to rise. Just as relevant, she said, spur-of-the-moment ticket purchases are beginning to replace the subscription audience. And then there is the failure of leadership on the boards of many theatres, reflecting the dynamics of the corporate and political worlds at large.
Cott asked how financial issues affect programming.
Nicola observed that he is forced to operate in a whole new way: "Years ago, we'd decide what we'd want to produce and then make financial adjustments. Now we start with funding; the projects we produce follow from that."
Pepe added that theatres must now think in terms of "event" programming, which may mean doing something controversial almost for the sake of doing something controversial. It's a constant balancing act between staying true to your artistic vision and attracting a substantial audience.
Running a nonprofit theatre is a double-edged proposition, remarked Machado. You are expected to produce new works that might not be produced otherwise, but at the same time you're morally obliged to appeal to audiences who do not ordinarily attend theatre. Machado's company, Intar, produces plays in English about the Latino experience in the United States and abroad.
Greco acknowledged that Women's Project & Productions also wants economically diverse audiences in the theatre. But it's also "imperative" that the theatre grow under her tenure, all the more so since she joined an already existing institution.
Chang, who founded Pan Asian Rep, a theatre known for producing large historical epics featuring international casts, said her company was facing very difficult times. For starters, it doesn't have its own home; currently it operates out of an Upper West Side church. Expenses are going up, the competition is keen -- audiences have so much to choose from -- and many international artists have bad feelings about coming to America, a country that is "not well-perceived in the world."
At one time you could raise ticket prices in the face of economic difficulties, commented Louloudes. But you can do that no longer: People are losing their jobs and they're not going to spend any extra money they have on theatre tickets.
Cott asked the panel whether they saw any trends in terms of the plays being submitted for possible production, and the panelists concurred that plays featuring as few as five or six characters are de rigueur nowadays.
"When you get a play with 15 characters, you check yourself," said Pepe, adding that casting a large play often creates some embarrassment for the Atlantic because of the small salaries they can pay actors. Still, they do large plays and many name actors are willing -- even happy -- to participate despite the modest sums.
"There's always money available for Shakespeare, but never new plays," said Machado, who also heads the playwriting department at Columbia University's School of the Arts.
"That means we have to market new plays that much harder," answered Chang.
In light of the theatres' nonprofit status, Louloudes said she was "uncomfortable by all the talk about money." Nevertheless, she acknowledged, "you want to push the envelope. But you want to make sure there is money in it."
That remark generated a laugh from the audience.
Pepe said his real concern is the quality of work on stage, not simply the bottom line: "Everything I do -- fundraising, marketing -- is about the story being told on stage."
"Is the goal to move to Broadway?" Cott asked.
Nicola equivocated. He said the existence of not-for-profit theatre "poses the idea that theatre is an art form," with both educational and "town hall" elements. At the same time, theatre has its roots in the world of entertainment. "In Puritan times, going to the theatre to be entertained was a form of transgression."
Still, Nicola admitted having ongoing battles with artists who want to see their work on Broadway. He noted that he tries to keep them focused on the project at hand instead of worrying about its future prospects.
Chang pointed out that New York Theatre Workshop "is still getting money from 'Rent,' " the Broadway hit that was launched at NYTW.
"Yes, it's a good thing," Nicola retorted matter-of-factly, to laughter from the audience.
"There used to be the idea that there was a career track in theatre," said Machado. "That's not true. You're either lucky or you're not. You do it because you love the work."
Louloudes talked about the changing sensibilities among young theatre artists: "Years ago, the graduating classes at Yale and NYU were interested in theatre. Now they all want to be in film."
Greco commented that one of the Women's Project's missions is to give female artists a voice -- and sometimes that may mean producing a work that is not terrific.
"There should be more mediocre plays," remarked Pepe. "We have to give playwrights the opportunity to fail." He stressed, however, that many commercial producers are now actively seeking nontraditional projects as they look to the future and hope to attract new audiences.
Greco mentioned that the Women's Project has created a new three-week program in which beginning women playwrights can see their work produced -- these are more than just readings -- without fear of the critics skewering them.
"Part of being a playwright is being skewered," noted Machado. "If we're all going for success, then we have no future." He added that far too many nonprofit theatres are either totally Eurocentric or they're just producing the hits. "I don't know why they're calling themselves not-for-profit."
When Chang asked him if he would charge for tickets if he didn't have to, he said he would not.
But Greco was not convinced that was such a good idea: "There is something about supporting a theatre, investing in it."
A Sense of Community
The discussion then turned to the question of whether theatre has a future.
Nicola said absolutely, if for no other reason than the communal experience it offers an audience. He cited the enthusiastic response theatregoers voiced following the first play he produced in the wake of Sept. 11: "They thanked me and it didn't matter what the play was. They were just happy to be in the room together. Part of my job is to create a community."
Pepe concurred: "People need that -- whether it's through religion or theatre."
The panelists felt that one of their major challenges was to break through the cultural conviction that sitting alone in a car with a headset was a more meaningful experience than going to the theatre. The question was pitched: How do we cultivate the attitude that theatre is a wonderful thing and that we're not competing with reality TV?
"We have to think about audience development," said Louloudes. "We shouldn't be using words like 'marketing' or 'branding.' It's a mistake. We're using an old model for a new industry." She talked about the importance of word of mouth in theatre and wondered if it would be a good idea to open up rehearsals to theatre reporters and others. She compared theatre writers to sports writers, suggesting that the latter are more engaged in their subject -- not to mention the more prominent position of their articles in newspapers.
Greco said that sports are part of the American psyche in a way the arts are not. The faces of athletes are on every cereal carton, while the arts are believed to be only for people with money: "We have to demystify the whole process and let people know that theatre is for everyone."
Machado talked about the problem of theatres not reaching out sufficiently to minority audiences.
Greco agreed there is a new world of marketing that needs to be more fully tapped in terms of audience outreach. At the same time, she voiced concern about ghettoizing artists as well: "At one time there was the belief that playwrights who got produced at WPP couldn't get produced anywhere else. That's not true. It's also not true that we don't work with men. We can't do it without men." She said it was important for the Women's Project to bring more men into its audiences as well.
Louloudes took the time to defend some of the larger not-for-profit theatres that had been subtly criticized during the discussion: "They do outreach and nontraditional casting. Lincoln Center was among the first to bring in plays from South Africa and the Manhattan Theatre Club did an all-black 'Seagull.' "
The seminar concluded on the subject of "term limits" for artistic directors. With the exception of Chang, who felt that Pan Asian Rep was profoundly her baby, the others believed that if and when they're not doing their jobs, they should step down. But designated term limits? No way!