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Off- and Off-Off-Broadway Hit Hard

Although only one downtown theatre—3 Legged Dog—literally lost its space and $80,000 in earned income and grant money as a result of the World Trade Center (WTC) crisis, the toll on theatre, especially the not-for-profits below Canal Street, is enormous. So asserts Mark Rossier, director of development and marketing at the Alliance of Resident Theatres, New York (ART/NY).

In the short-term, theatres in the area closed shop, he says. But will audiences return even after the theatres re-open? (Will lingering fear keep them at bay?) And assuming audiences do come back, what difference will it make? Will too much damage have already occurred?

"We have to remember that most of the smaller downtown theatres—like Soho Rep and the Tribeca Playhouse which generate added income from renting their space to other companies, are losing funds as those companies [the "rentees"] pull out or cut back on scheduled performances," Rossier points out. "Nonetheless, the bills must be paid—rent, staff, utilities.

"The companies that rent the theatres' spaces also have costs that have to be met and they too are losing money since most, if not all, of their income is from ticket sales," Rossier continues.

And let's not overlook the plight of the theatre funders themselves—corporate and individual—who have been especially hard hit, adds Daniel Aukin, artistic director of Soho Rep. For starters, there is the faltering economy—existing before Sept. 11—that has now been compounded by the devastation. Everyone we interviewed talks about the "ripple economic effect" that cannot yet be fully gauged.

"Individual donors are now trying to save their own businesses," notes Aukin. "As for corporate funders—even those that were not headquartered in the WTC, many had offices there and/or in surrounding buildings."

Emphasizes Rossier: funders—public as well as private—are now facing financial, spiritual, and philosophical issues in connection with underwriting the arts that go way beyond their (the funders') existing—or non existing—office space.

George Forbes, treasurer of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, puts it this way: "How will the health of the financial market affect funding for high-risk investments like theatre? Will theatre take a back seat to other philanthropic causes?"

And then there's that elusive mood factor. There's no secret that ticket sales for shows on Broadway as well as Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway are plummeting. Under the circumstances, not many theatregoers—many of whom are tourists who have cancelled their visits—feel like frolicking at a show.

Long-running productions, which are particularly dependent on tourists and corporate parties, are suffering especially. Consider "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," now in its 14th year and the longest-running comedy on or Off-Broadway. It suspended performances after the Sept. 23rd matinee. Production spokesperson David Gersten cites the show's "joyous actor-audience interactive elements"—that violate current public sensibilities—as a contributing factor in the show's closing.

The good news is that its closing is only temporary; at least that's what everyone is hoping. Indeed, "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" along with a host of other Off-Broadway shows are going on a hiatus—thanks to various financial concessions offered to Off-Broadway producers by Actors' Equity Association. Among the shows on hiatus and scheduled to reopen within nine weeks: "Bat Boy," "Syringa Tree," and "tick, tick…boom!."

Kevin Cunningham, artistic director of the ill-fated 3 Legged Dog, is also cautiously optimistic, despite the enormous loss his company has endured. "Our offices are at 30 West Broadway and the building is so structurally damaged we have not been able to return. We have lost our database, software, and some very important videotape that we needed for our next production. The videotape featured scenes from the jungles of Mexico. We are planning to re-shoot the video. And if that is not possible, we will do the production, 'Campuchea Loisaida' [now scheduled for a Nov. opening at a Tribeca theatre] with candles and shadow puppets.

"Our big concern," he continues, "is that foreign producers who traditionally come to our shows and underwrite our tours will not be flying to the States as readily as they have in the past."

Jeff Cohen, who founded and heads the Worth Street Theatre Company—it operates out of the Tribeca Playhouse—talks about a downtown theatre community transforming itself in the face of a mind-boggling atrocity. In fact, he sees a new inter-relationship between theatre and the city's heroes—the police, the fire department, and the steelworkers; indeed, any and all of the volunteers who have been involved in the rescue efforts.

"Clearly, what has happened to theatre pales in comparison to everything else," Cohen declares. "Still, people need a way to connect and theatre—especially a small theatre—can provide that. Within the next few weeks we are going to be offering a kind of USO variety show on Monday nights that will combine kitsch with patriotism. The show featuring Queen Esther—she was a hit at Joe's Pub—should be a lot of fun. We are hoping Broadway and Off-Broadway stars will volunteer to perform. Everyone who has participated in the rescue effort is invited to come and will be admitted free of charge!" q

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