The economy is booming, recession is but a distant memory, and real estate prices are soaring. That may be good news for Wall Street, but it isn't cheering very many people Off-Off-Broadway.
The paradox is that as the average American gets more money to spend—money that, theoretically, could be spent on entertainment—purveyors of live theatre are being priced out of increasingly gentrified neighborhoods where they have historically plied their trade.
Valentina Fratti knows the situation well. As the artistic director of the Miranda Theatre, located at 259 W. 30 St., she has always been proud that the theatre has "never run a deficit." But now that the landlord has hit the Miranda with a rent increase of more than 100%, Fratti worries for the Miranda—and for the health of theatre in New York.
"In January our rent goes up to a price that would be prohibitive for any not-for-profit theatre; it would bury anyone," she told Back Stage in a telephone interview this week. "It looks like our next show will be our last show."
The problem, she acknowledges, is that real estate values have risen so high and so fast, theatres like the Miranda are being squeezed out. And although some politicians, notably City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, "are trying to figure out how to use tax abatements and other creative ideas to keep theatres going," there is a lack of concern higher up. "I don't think City Hall—under this regime, anyway—has any idea of the effects the arts have on the communities, and society," Fratti said.
Nor do most people consider all the effects of rising rents on theatre companies. "Foundations and corporations will not fund you if they look at your budget and see that 75%—even 60%—goes to rent. And who can blame them? They want to support art, not whatever real estate conglomerate is the company's landlord."
When the Miranda packs up and moves out of the neighborhood after 10 years, it will mean more than just the end of one theatre company. "We've developed and created over 50 projects, involving more than 475 artists," Fratti said. "When we first moved in here, we felt so lucky to have a theatre; we felt like, 'This is great. We don't ever want it to be dark.'"
The enthusiasm hasn't dimmed, but soon the lights on the 70-seat theatre will.
Fratti discussed the possibility of several theatre companies banding together to buy a building with a floor for each one, but didn't think it was likely in today's market. "There is something sort of like that, in Brooklyn, put together by ART/NY [the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York]," she said, referring to South Oxford Space, a five-story office building in Brooklyn that ART/NY bought, renovated, and rents at low rates to 19 emerging and small theatre companies. "But the answer to the question people sometimes ask me, 'Why don't you go to Brooklyn?' is that you can't get audiences to go to Brooklyn.
"Yes, we could afford the space, but the reality is that I'd have a wonderful building—and it would just be me watching my cast perform, and that's not what I want."
So, reluctantly, Fratti is preparing for the end, which in this case will be a one-person show by former VH-1 video host Bobby Rivers. "I thought I could never sit through another one-man show again," she laughed, "but this is really good, like Spaulding Gray meets Whoopi Goldberg." The show, entitled "We Can't All Be Matt Lauer: Misadventures in Broadcast-ing," will be directed by Matt Lenz and will only play Monday nights. It will open Nov. 13 and run through Dec. 18; information is available at (212) 268-9829, ext. 1.
According to advance word on the show, Rivers' "ability to look at the glass half full…is in direct correlation with one of [Miranda's] objectives—to present new works that offer hope."
Unfortunately, Fratti is all but out of hope when it comes to the Miranda—at least for the time being. "I'm going to do something else for a while," she said, "but I hope that things will change. I hope in 10 years there'll be some vacancies in this town."