The Playgoer: Welcome to New York, Starving Artists: Part 1

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome to New York, Starving Artists: Part 1

Today I begin a new Playgoer feature, intended for those many young theatre artists who have just descended on our fair city in search of a career in the theatre. Some of you may be just out of undergrad or grad school, or are just beginning your studies at one of our fine local universities. While I can't give you all advice on how to get a job, I can help you get to know the New York theatre scene at least as an audience and observer.  And that's at least an essential step towards working here successfully.

I also hope this will interest any readers out there in the 99% of the country that isn't Manhattan island, as well as curious internationals who don't already know the New York theatre scene too intimately and would like to know more.

So today we start with some of the basics, beginning with: What the hell's the difference between Broadway and Off Broadway?

Good question!  And I'll begin by's the wrong question!  Your parents and grandparents (and apparently most of our current theatre journalists) might have told you that Broadway was the "main stem" of American theatre, the crowning achievement that marks the pinnacle of the artform, and that Off Broadway was, well, somewhat "off." You know, different.  Weirder plays with cheaper budgets and cheaper tickets.

Well all that may have been true in the 1950s, but no longer.  The proper dividing line I believe, to make today is not Off Broadway vs. On. It's for profit vs. non.

Today, we look at the for.

The best way to think of Broadway now is as the most high-profile venue for American commercial theatre.  Commercial theatre happens everywhere in this great land of ours, of course--on tour, on cruises, in Vegas casinos. But a Broadway show only happens is when a commercial producer (or anyone with the cash) rents one of the 39 pre-ordained theater buildings in the Times Square area. (plus Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont space--more on Lincoln Center exceptions later) and presents an entertainment there with professional performers in accordance with Actors Equity and other union contracts.  All this happens under the auspices of said unions and the Broadway League, the Broadway producers' trade/lobbying organization.

Commercial theatre can also happen elsewhere in New York outside of the Broadway geography and rules.  ("Chitlin Circuit" tours often play the Upper West Side Beacon Theatre, for instance.) And, yes, there is also some theatre produced commercially Off Broadway.

So what makes one for-profit enterprise a "Broadway" production and another "Off Broadway"?  Well, again, a Broadway show is in a Broadway theater.  But part of what makes those theater buildings Broadway-worthy is size.  They're all--by law, as it were--500 seats or over.  Most are way over. (Only 6 of the official Broadway theaters hold fewer than 1000.)  The reason is not just "bigger is better"; it's about ticket sales.  The Broadway business model is founded on the assumption that you'll have the potential to sell at least 500--and preferably 1000--tickets (your "product") for sale each performance.

By definition, then, a venue with fewer than 500 seats is eligible to be produced under an "Off Broadway" contract--under which unions allow lower salaries and other concessions Broadway productions don't get. There's no law saying Off Broadway shows can't charge the same price for tickets as Broadway (as proven by many advertising upwards of an $80 top) most producers try to make their produce seem more like a bargain to the consumer.  Slightly lower ticket prices (current commercial Off Broadway tix usually run anywhere from $40-$75) are also a gesture of admitting there will usually not be the same level of celebrity and/or production values consumers expect from Broadway.

While back in the day of its origins (basically the 1950s) "Off Broadway" referred to "downtown." The term "Off Broadway" was basically a default neologism.  (i.e. not Broadway)  That use is outdated.  First, as we've seen, the term now has a specific contractual meaning in many contexts that it didn't have back then.  And now an Off Broadway venue can be anywhere in the city.  There even used to be a few in the residential neighborhoods of the Upper East and West Sides before rising rents and challenging commercial Off B'way economics shuttered them.  The most thriving ones now, though, do tend to orbit the Times Square Broadway district--such as the New World Stages complex and the utterly capitalistically named Snapple Theater Center. Location, location, location certainly contributes to their success and survival because of the easy access to the Broadway tourist audience--who are already in the neighborhood and might not recognize the  difference between Broadway and Off.  (And so, Lesson One: not everything you see in Times Square is a Broadway Show.)

The predicament for commercial Off Broadway over the last decade has been how to compete with Broadway for that same audience market while you have a much smaller potential for profit (due to fewer seats at lower prices) and yet still pay many of the same expenses--like marketing and advertising costs, which do not distinguish between Broadway and Off.

I should add at this point for all those young actors out there that you basically have to be Equity to perform in either Commercial Broadway or Commercial Off Broadway productions.  It's in the union contracts for each. (Part of what makes them expensive to produce.)  Your best bet to perform Off or Off-Off (more on that in future installments) is to focus on the nonprofit theaters (more on that, too, of course).

However, there is one form of non-union Commercial Off-Off Broadway, and that's what I'd call the Tony & Tina's Wedding classification.  These are basically "events" that may advertise as (and alongside) professional theatrical productions, but in truth operate outside of the real NY theatre world altogether--including using nonunion labor. 

My advice to young actors who are serious about making a career is not to do these kinds of shows.  But maybe some more experiences actors out there can add more.

So much for the commercial/for-profit sector.  Next time: nonprofit.  The real theatre!  Oops, did I just say that? sorry...

1 comment:

Sabina E. said...

i most especacially like your last line.

anyway, Broadway is for tourists. Everyone knows that.