Commercial Off-Broadway's Pulse Looks Like a Flat Line

t a recent meeting of a community board in Greenwich Village that was weighing the fate of a legendary Off-Broadway theatre, the Provincetown Playhouse, George Forbes, executive director of the Lucille Lortel Foundation and president of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, rose to speak. Addressing scores of worried preservationists along with representatives of New York University, which has proposed radically altering the structure, Forbes expressed his belief that the university's stewardship of the theatre over the past 20 years had likely saved it from ruin. Simply put, he said, there aren't enough seats in this Off-Broadway house to make it economically feasible for commercial production.

Forbes may not have recognized it at the time, but he articulated what many in the New York theatre have been whispering: The traditional business model for commercial Off-Broadway is near death.

Not that there aren't commercial producers out there mounting Off-Broadway shows and pursuing profits, thereby giving actors, playwrights, directors, designers, and other artists valuable work. It's just more difficult now than it ever has been to break even, much less make money. Ken Davenport, for example, is one of the industry's success stories, with three commercial Off-Broadway productions on the boards: Altar Boyz, The Awesome '80s Prom, and My First Time. Last February, triumphant news stories appeared touting the fact that all three of Davenport's shows were in the black. What rightly worries people such as Forbes is that, according to the news reports, it took nearly four years for The Awesome '80s Prom and almost three for Altar Boyz to turn a profit. Not all commercial producers have Davenport's grit and perseverance.

This helps explain the decrease earlier this decade in the number of Off-Broadway venues. The Douglas Fairbanks, John Houseman, Variety Arts, Circle in the Square Downtown, Promenade, and Sullivan Street Playhouse are all gone, felled by real estate developers making offers that cost-conscious owners couldn't refuse. Meanwhile, capitalization costs for Off-Broadway commercial shows can be well over $1 million or $2 million these days, and when producers have only 199 to 299 seats to fill at, say, $75 or $85 a ticket, the possibility of profit seems dubious.

In addition, to some degree Off-Broadway lacks Broadway's marketing and branding advantages, so a $75 or $85 ticket is seen as a bigger risk. In the general public's view, Off-Broadway still represents adventurousness and experimentation, though that niche is far more the province today of Off-Off-Broadway, which has economic issues of its own. No wonder Off-Broadway commercial producers have been reduced again and again to mounting shows with one or two actors at most, or presenting shows with theatrical gimmicks. The trend that began in the early '90s with the likes of Stomp and Blue Man Group has only accelerated with such fare as Gazillion Bubble Show.

Why should actors care about this? Well, you don't need to study Meisner to blow bubbles.

True, this decade has also seen new Off-Broadway houses come online, including the Little Shubert, the Barrow Street Theatre, the revitalized five-venue Theatre Row, the five-venue New World Stages, and 37 Arts, but any tally of commercial Off-Broadway productions in recent years wouldn't show things improving financially. Indeed, last October the New York Post reported that 37 Arts, where the Tony-winning musical In the Heights ran prior to its Broadway transfer, was facing foreclosure.

Notice how we haven't said anything about the nonprofit Off-Broadway arena? That's because these theatre companies appear to be doing just fine. One group, Second Stage Theatre, recently announced it intends to buy Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, joining three other Main Stem nonprofits—Roundabout Theatre Company, Lincoln Center Theater, and Manhattan Theatre Club—in what used to be the exclusive world of commercial producers. There are also plenty of plays and musicals coming from these companies, so actors are working. The trouble is that actors make less under those contracts than they would under commercial contracts. So unless bold thinkers like Davenport can remake the commercial producing model, actors may have to thank the nonprofit philanthropists for keeping the sector alive.