The Playgoer: Studio Arena, Buffalo

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Studio Arena, Buffalo

Don't know how I missed this but last week Buffalo's Studio Arena theatre has all but folded.

(Hat tip to Mark Armstrong for being on the case.)

The Playbill story offers a sad and scary glimpse at the possible (likely?) future of similar-sized (i.e. big!) regionals in declining urban areas.

Studio Arena Theatre, the 43-year-old Buffalo, NY, not-for-profit that gave life to world premieres and revivals, has shut its doors, canceled the remainder of its season and laid off 17 staffers, it was announced Feb. 25....The company, saddled with a $3 million debt, is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while the next step is plotted.

That next step being...?

A new proposed business model for the theatre's future would have Studio Arena Theatre become a smaller operation and produce perhaps three productions a year (down from six or seven), while sharing its facility with other organizations.

A proposed partnership would hand over administrative, marketing and building management jobs to Shea's Performing Arts Center. Buffalo State College would take over Arena's theatre school and education arm.

Reasonable enough, I guess, given the reported post-mortem--I mean, diagnosis:

[The Buffalo News] reported that the troupe's situation was blamed on decline in subscribership (from 8,044 in 2003 to 5,047 in 2007), an aging and declining Buffalo population, loss of major donors, competition from other theatres in the region and an operating budget that relied on ticket sales for 72 percent of revenues (about 60 percent from ticket sales is the national norm).

At a Feb. 25 press conference, board president Daniel A. Dintino stated, "It became very evident early in the season that the business model being followed, where Studio Arena operated as a single organization incurring all the risk in performing every function of a full producing professional theatre — from selecting and producing each show to selling tickets — was not going to be successful."

Lots of interesting data there. First that most theatres get only 60% of their revenue from ticket sales. That's not to say ticket sales don't matter--on the contrary, it means that 100% crowd capacity only gets you 2/3rds the way to solvency. While once upon a time a little insolvency didn't matter, today's CEO-stacked Boards won't have it.

Of course, single tickets aren't the issue for these theatre--it's subscriptions. And when you see that nearly 50% decline for Studio Arena in just the last 5 years I can only think of two causes: the economy and old age. Yes, the generation--dare I say "The Greatest Generation"?--of American playgoers, those born in the Depression, are rapidly entering their 70s and 80s.

So good luck to Studio Arena, especially to the folks just laid off there. Maybe you can form another more "solvent" theatre company for the 21st Century with countless colleagues around the country about to meet the same fate...

5 comments:

Tony Adams said...

"I can only think of two causes: the economy and old age."

That actual work being staged could be a third cause. That's one thing many major institutions fail to recognize.

The Playgoer said...

Point taken, Tony. In retrospect, my use of "only" was an overstatement. Those were just the two FIRSt things that came to mind...Still, they were a pretty professional group, the one production of theirs I saw (Glass Menagerie in 2000) was fine. Maybe they're guilty of that stale safe institutional style--but God knows that hasn't hurt many a prominent LORT theatre...

Esther said...

I wrote a little something about this last week on my blog. It did shock me, because Buffalo is a big city. It ought to be able to support a repertory theater company. I've lived in much smaller cities that have done it successfully.

I think you do have a good point about the "Greatest Generation of playgoers." It's no longer mass entertainment the way it once was, just like show tunes are no longer America's Top 40. If you think back to the 1960s, and the way "Camelot" became this shorthand for the Kennedy years, that was probably the last time a piece of musical theater entered the American public consciousness in such a deep way. No theater reference could do that today.

I wasn't a regular theatergoer before last year, and I think people who don't go regularly are somewhat intimidated by it. They think they won't understand it, or it's not for them.

The audience at my local theater, Trinity Rep, in Providence, does skew older, although the theater does seem to be in good financial shape and has a lot of community and corporate support.

I'm in my 40s and sometimes I feel like I'm among the youngest people there. Granted, I go on Sunday afternoons, but I'm sure there are plenty of people in their 20s and 30s at the movies on Sunday afternoon. I usually get $15 rush tickets, which are almost always available two hours beforehand. So it's not prohibitively expensive.

I also go to touring productions of Broadway shows, and the audience there seems much more diverse age-wise. There's a theater in Buffalo that brings in the big touring companies, and it seems pretty successful. So it's not that people aren't interested in the theater at all.

Obviously, musicals have an easier time attracting an audience, but it's not impossible for a straight play to pack people in. There was a production at Trinity that I wanted to see last fall, but it got really good reviews and it was sold out every Sunday afternoon. I was too clever for my own good with that one!

I like to think I'm not the only person who goes to both the repertory theater and the touring shows, but I don't know.

Another issue that was brought up in some of the stories from Buffalo is corporate sponsorship drying up as local companies get bought out and their headquarters move away. Although in Buffalo's case, the Broadway house does seem to have lots of corporate sponsors.

I don't really know anything about the specifics of the situation in Buffalo. Some of the stories I read noted that there are some smaller repertory theaters that were gaining subscribers at the expense of Studio Arena. Maybe it was a perfect storm of economics, aging subscriber base and plays that didn't strike a chord with the audience.

Anonymous said...

I performed at Studio Arena in '90 and returned to perform at Shea's, the Buffalo touring house in'02.
Another problem facing Buffalo is that downtown almost entirely closes down after the 9-5 work day is over. Everyone heads for the suburbs. City fathers, the local media, and the chamber of commerce have to encourage and promote downtown events in cities like Buffalo. Theatre cannot survive on a few intrepid subscribers and a handful of brave restaurant and club owners in the inner cities.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I are two of the subscribers that dropped Studio Arena. Probably the main reason was the decline in production quality. Rather than putting on interesting productions, there were more musicals, one actor monologues, puppets, and other gimmicks. The artistic director that they brought in made a lot of bad choices. She was brought in with a bad financial situation, but responded by making decisions that ended up driving away subscribers.