A Class Act 

Dave Edson 

On February 17, 2009 Manhattan Community Boards 1 – 5 jointly hosted a Public Forum On: The State of Small To Mid-Sized Theaters- Developing Strategies in this time of Crisis and Opportunity at the Players Club. Hundreds of theater lovers crammed into the Gramercy facility to discuss fresh ideas for small to mid-sized theaters in the current economic crisis.

Hmmm…sounded really interesting, actually. I’ve got to admit: I had a swirling of thoughts in my head about what the evening would look like. I mean, after all, this sounded very old fashioned to me. Not to mention the oxymoronic quality of a town hall-sounding public forum in The Big Apple of all places. “What will happen?” I wondered.

Will a town crier bust on the scene wielding a bell to announce the death of small theaters in New York? What would the memorial service be like? Or, is their still hope? Maybe we’re just on life support. Will reincarnation be involved? Zombies? Hobos on soapboxes? What?!

Upon arrival, one could not help but be struck by just how beautiful The Players Club is. Gramercy is not the first place people mention when the think of Off-Off Broadway. We were the Little Orphan Annies stepping into Daddy Warbucks’s house for the first time or The Fresh Prince laying eyes on Bel-Air. The building is an historic monument to New York City and its ghosts of Edwin Booth, Mark Twain, Eugene O’Neil, and Lauren Bacall are immortalized within the building and its impeccable woodworking, portraits, and architecture. And we’re supposed to discuss small theater in the current economic crisis here? Let the oxymorons continue.

The evening was a who’s who of artistic and administrative theater luminaries in New York City. And with its packed house, it also had a feeling of “Who’s that and how can we work together?”

Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation kicked the evening off by speaking passionately about how much can change in one year. The good news according to Mr. Cameron is that “We are not part of the problem, we are part of the solution!” Now if only we could afford rent.

As a starting point John Clancy, Executive Director, League of Independent Theater, Inc. and a co-founder of The New York International Fringe Festival so clearly pointed out, “We need space before we need money” otherwise we are “like a football team without a field”.

But what is our “field”? Well, that depends on who you are…

Weather you have the technological needs of Kevin Cunningham and 3 Legged Dog or you have the experience and flexibility of the self proclaimed “senior crisis person in the room”, Founding Director of the Living Theater, Judith Malina, we are all at a disadvantage in the current economic crisis and everyone agreed to work together. Now was not the time to choose one kind of theater over another. Nor was there any talk about how to improve our art. That would be a different forum.

It became apparent as the evening went on that it is ironically the Off-Off Broadway community who is fairing the best, as pointed out by Virginia Louloudes, Executive Director of ART/NY. Reason: Because we are so accustomed to struggling tooth and nail and we don’t have to deal with the real estate woes attached to permanent rehearsal and performance spaces. Yay?

The grass is not necessarily greener elsewhere either according to Paul Nagle, Director of Cultural Affairs for Council Member Alan Gerson. Italy just cut $1.3 billion in arts funding and even our friends from Canada had millions slashed and were called “grant seeker whiners” from their powers that be! Although times are tough, everyone agreed that New York City is still a generous place and that we should all keep on truckin’.

Ultimately, what were we to get from this evening? Well, Borough President of Manhattan, Scott Stringer told us “I don’t sing and dance”, so he asked the artists of New York very bluntly to “Give us (city leaders) a roadmap to the product you expect” and to hold them to a “new, higher standard.” Stringer also simply reminded us, “Theater is good for business.”

Business first, art second is difficult for many of us, but there are simple ideas. Tamara Greenfield, Executive Director, FAB Arts District pointed out that low ticket prices keep houses full and to consider alternative performances spaces such as public pools which are unused eight months out of the year.

There will be tax incentives for commercial spaces to rent to non-profit theaters coming soon. Grants are depleted? Find alternative ways of fundraising like teaching classes. Can’t find space? Go site specific. No more local resources?  Open up to an international scale. The crisis is also not solely financial as Cameron called for a “redefinition of culture.” Most agreed that theater will not look the same in five years time.

Anthony Borelli, Director of Land Use, Manhattan Borough President’s Office pointed out that when a community spoke up, East Harlem’s P.S. 109 was turned into affordable housing for artists and a potential food court in Battery Park was transformed into a free art exhibit space. Change can and does happen.

And what does it take? A surprisingly small number of people, says Borelli so long as the message is clear and unified. Find your Community Board online by searching for CB1, CB2, etc. and click on the calendar of events.

The evening at the Player’s Club was just a jumping off point. We won’t feel the full extent of the economy for another year in some aspects with budgets being on a delayed 12-36 month calendar.

Tough stuff, but who better than the OOB artist, who is all too familiar with challenges both in their lives and in the rehearsal room to understand, whenever there us crisis, there is opportunity?

Resource quick list:
Space: www.chashama.org, www.newyorkspaces.com
Insurance and beyond: www.fracturedatlas.org
Green Theatre: www.broadwaygoesgreen.com, www.greentheaters.org
Arts Policy: www.artspolicynow.com
Business and community: www.litny.org
Artist development: www.thefield.org

Related Stories
The show must go on without theaters, The Real Deal - 2/17/09
Board players eye evolving theater scene at forum, Chelsea Now - 2/27/09
Forum on Small theatres Brings Ideas for Change - 3/17/09


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