Defining Our Terms
To begin, here are the five basic types of theater in this country:
- Broadway. A Broadway show is a production that has been mounted in a theater within a very specifically defined geography on the island of Manhattan in New York City. The “Broadway Box,” as it is known, runs from 6th Avenue on the east (Ave. of the Americas) to 9th Avenue on the west, from 40th Street on the south to 50th street on the north. Traditionally, the theaters in this area are managed commercially. Productions rent them for as long as they are profitable, then they close and a new commercially produced show replaces it. There are a limited number of owners, including, famously, the Shuberts, Jujamcyn, and the Nederlanders. These owners traditionally do not develop or create the production, although they may invest. These are all union houses.
- Off-Broadway refers to theatrical productions that are performed in theaters located in Manhattan but outside the Broadway Box, and with fewer than 499 seats. As an example, the Public Theater, where the musical Hamilton was premiered, is not a Broadway House, located as it is in the East Village and having only 299 seats. An early commercially successful Off-Broadway production was a version of the Threepenny Opera, which is the only non-Broadway show to ever win a Tony Award—Lotte Lenya won for her performance. Very soon after this, the Tonys were limited to shows produced within the Box. These theaters can belong to the Off-Broadway League, which has negotiated agreements with Actors Equity and other unions.
- Off-Off-Broadway is a description of often overtly experimental theater produced for the pure art of it, not for commercial success. The first of these is the Living Theatre, founded in 1948. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, Café Cino, La MaMa ETC, and many others followed suit. Some definitions argue that at this point, Off-Off-Broadway has come to mean theaters that are fewer than 199 seats, and so are very small. However, traditionally, it is about experimentation, and pushing the envelope of theatrical experience.
- Regional Theater describes work in cities around the country. It is a misleadingly broad term, and really should be broken into two. On the one hand, there are the medium-to-large theaters in major cities that are generally nonprofit in structure and run a season of plays to a subscription audience and single-ticket buyers. These are also known as resident theaters and are active under an agreement with Actors Equity. (Typically, although not always, the Special Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre goes to theaters that easily fall in this category.) Many of these same cities also have smaller theater companies offering alternatives to the main theaters. These are smaller in scope and in many cases do not even have a permanent home to call their own. Either nonprofit in structure or possibly even unincorporated, this is the regional theater network’s version of Off and Off-Off Broadway.
- Community Theater is the most local form of theater, in which the residents of a community choose to come together and put on a show. These troupes of amateur performers (in the sense of unpaid, not as a quality judgment) can often last for years and lead to incorporation as a nonprofit organization and in some cases have annual budgets in the hundreds of thousands.
Some differ on the distinction between Broadway and Off-Broadway, seeing it as more of a theater-size difference than a geographic one, but that is more or less a matter of semantics.
With the above as a shared baseline, we can begin to look at the story about Second Stage in a little more detail. That company is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1979. The original mission was to mount productions of works that deserve a second chance—ones that had been produced before but for whatever reason deserved a new and wider audience than they originally received. Later, the mission expanded to include new works by living writers. The theater remains committed to producing work by established and emerging writers. They brag that their purchase of the Helen Hayes Theatre makes them the only Broadway house with a commitment to living writers.
A Brief History of Off-Broadway Theater
That slightly rebellious sense of doing something new and different, something that no one else is doing, is at the heart of the Off-Broadway movement and dates back to the early 1900s.
As World War One was ending, many Americans were looking for an escape and sought to forget the woes of the war years. Broadway would provide this with its big splashy productions that involved music, dance, skits, and more. There might have been a story, but it was secondary to the song and dance. This eventually morphed into what we know as the modern musical, where the story is the core of the production and the music helps tell the story. The production credited with giving birth to modern Broadway was Show Boat.
But this was also a period of great artistic experimentation both in Europe and in the United States. Artists were rebelling against the realistic traditions in writing, art, and drama. In Europe, expressionism, Dada, and more were exploring distortion of the dominant realistic lens art used on the world. In New York, this rebellion against the status quo of the art world led to the start of Off-Broadway. Two early Off-Broadway houses, Washington Square Players and Provincetown Players were established as collectives in the mid-1910s. They focused on the production of writers like Eugene O’Neill, whose work was simply not seen in the for-profit, commercial Broadway houses.
The formal designation of nonprofits in the tax code as 501c organizations was created in 1954 (although charitable organizations preceded the creation of this category by many decades), so technically these early 20th-century organizations were not nonprofits in the modern sense of the word. Still, they acted in much the same way that we commonly see with nonprofits now, as they were not managed to make money. If they did turn a profit, the earnings were immediately rolled into mounting the next production.
All of this is particularly interesting to me, as my career started in nonprofit theater in the 1980s. It is hard to imagine for those of us who worked there at the time, but that period of theater history has been called a Golden Age for the Off-Broadway theater movement. By then, places like the Public, Manhattan Theatre Club, Circle in the Square, and Second Stage were thriving. The movement was about producing work that would not be seen on Broadway because it was new, experimental, or simply not going to attract an audience big enough to fill a Broadway house and make enough money to turn a profit.
Circle Repertory Company, where I worked, is a good example. The founders—Marshall Mason, Lanford Wilson, Tanya Berezin, and Rob Thirkield—were given their start Off-Off-Broadway at La MaMa ETC and wanted to carry on the rebellious work of developing new and exciting voices. We had a “company” that included actors but 15 writers as well. Those names included eventual Pulitzer Prize winners and more. David Mamet, Lanford Wilson, and Terence McNally were on the list, but so were good but less known writers like Corinne Jacker, John Bishop, and Milan Stitt. We also had a “lab” of 15 emerging writers. We held 40 cold readings, 10 rehearsed readings, and 6 staged readings every year. This was a company that was committed to new writing. We even read any play that was mailed to us and sent a letter back to the writer with comments. For us, it was a statement to be made that writing was critical and if it was not going to be seen on Broadway, then it was up to us to do it.
Entering “The Box”
Throughout its history, that rebellious spirit has been as a reaction to what was happening on Broadway. The Off-Broadway movement has been described by historian Stuart Little as “a revolt of some sort against the established theater is at the root of all Off-Broadway movements.” By its very name, the movement is not Broadway—it is off that commercial strip.
So, the physical model that is being broken here is that Second Stage is moving onto Broadway and so entering the Box. This is a very new phenomenon. In the 1980s, there was some movement to come close to the Box, as theatrical initiatives like New Dramatists and Playwrights Horizons took residence on the far west portion of 42nd Street. There was even a high-rise apartment complex on 42nd Street that gave discounts to actors and so was known as the Equity Ghetto, in reference to Actors Equity, the union for professional performers. But the physical barrier between Broadway and Off-Broadway remained intact. More recently, this has changed, as there are now six theaters, including the Helen Hayes, that are owned by nonprofits.
The philosophical model change is that by taking ownership of the Helen Hayes, Second Stage is becoming part of the very type of theater it was founded in revolt against. They have joined the owners Nederlander, Shubert, and Jujamcyn whose commercialism is antithetical to the Off-Broadway movement. To quote the movie Pan, as Wendy says to the grownup Peter Pan who is now engaged in mergers and acquisitions, “Peter! You’ve become a pirate!” Theaters like Second Stage and Manhattan Theatre Club had started out as a revolt against the mainstream, against the institution represented in the term “Broadway,” but now seek to become institutions themselves. Adopting Broadway houses is a physical manifestation of that desire to emerge as an institution.
The question then is if this should be considered a bad idea. Regional theaters like the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Actors Theatre of Louisville have long been viewed as “institutions” in their respective home cities. They are members of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and produce some very high-quality work. What Second Stage and the other Off-Broadway theaters can do is present high quality, artistically strong work on Broadway at a lower cost as a contrast to the commercial, escapist fare that is the hallmark of the Great White Way’s current offerings.
The impact that this will have on the financial structure of the nonprofits that have moved onto Broadway may be significant as well. Traditionally, the Broadway theaters have been union houses and the costs to mount productions at those venues has been significantly higher than in a traditional Off-Broadway house. Nonprofit organizations such as the Off-Broadway houses can generate income through charitable contributions that can offset the expenses and keep ticket prices at a lower level. The Second Stage is offering a subscription series to audiences to attend three shows, two of which would be at the Helen Hayes, for an average ticket price of $83.33 and a four-show package with the same two Hayes Theatre shows for an average ticket price of $73.75. By contrast, the average price on Broadway has been over $110 so far in 2018.
However, a 2015 report by Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the leading association of nonprofit theaters, found that the larger theaters that have gross revenues of over $5 million tend to rely more heavily on ticket sales, averaging more than 50 percent of income from earned revenue sources. In comparison, those under $5 million threshold generated more than 50 percent of their income from contributions. This may be reflected in the much higher ticket prices at the “institutional” nonprofits. In 2015, the average ticket price as reported by TCG was $39, approximately half of what Second Stage is now charging even with the “discounted” prices of a subscription package.
So, the change in the economic model seen here is that by entering that “institutional” phase, these nonprofit theater companies like Second Stage have to rely much more heavily on ticket sales to offset the higher expenses they are incurring in these large, formerly commercial venues. Although they are far more accessible price-wise to the average theater-goer than a Broadway show, they are still far more expensive than the average Off-Broadway house. This is also reflected in the TCG report which indicates that larger theaters had a lower than average subscriber renewal rate: subscribers were not returning for another year at the same rate as they do for less expensive houses.
What Comes Next?
At the start of this story, I defined the standard five types of theater in America. Perhaps this new model represents a sixth: a little bit of a hybrid of the commercial, for-profit structure of Broadway with the non-commercial, nonprofit structure of Off-Broadway.
What are the implications of a new model and what will it evolve into? There is a long and very rich tradition of having a show start Off-Broadway and then move into a commercial production at a Broadway house. Hamilton from the Public Theater is one example, as is Little Shop of Horrors or Lanford Wilson’s 5th of July, from the Circle Rep where I used to work. That is different than the model adopted by Second Stage and the others. Those were one-off productions that were popular enough to be profitable on Broadway for a while and did not add extra pressure to the originating company. In fact, it was a benefit, offering royalties and visibility to the originating company (and it allowed employees like me the eligibility of playing softball in the Broadway Show League for a while).
The many and varied financial pressures on theater companies around the country have given rise to a number of stories that have been covered by NPQ, including one where a theater has turned around its finances and sued its auditor, another in which a theater had bought a lot of property and now that the neighborhood has become hot they are selling it off to make money, and a third about how theaters are getting better at cultivating donors.
Second Stage and the others are facing the realities of sustainability and growth by assuming responsibility for content on a Broadway stage year-round. As the need grows to attract a greater numbers of ticket buyers to the theater to help offset the now increasing costs of mounting productions in a Broadway house, will some compromises be required? Ticket prices are already at a level that is more than enough to deter less wealthy potential audience members. Many “institution” Off-Broadway theaters are also bragging about attracting famous actors from TV and film to their stages, which we imagine is intended to draw the interest of audiences that might normally attend a traditional Broadway show. However, in a sense, it is another example of having become part of the mainstream.
When I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it was to work at one of the really good regional theaters, the Milwaukee Repertory Company. I had known about Milwaukee theater for some time because it had a long-standing support for a very experimental company known as Theatre X (where Willem Dafoe got his start). Any community that could support Theatre X had to be a good place for a theater person to go, and it was and remains a good theater town. As I started working at the Rep, though, I noticed a different attitude among the patrons. When the Rep mounted productions by a series of wonderful artists from Chile, and new works by Ping Chong and Daniel Stein that were experimental and nonlinear in their storytelling, the audience either did not show up at all, or they became almost angry.
The approach I had seen in New York for some of the new work was that audiences would metaphorically lean in, excitedly wondering what the next thing would be—what the company would do this time to explore new ways of sharing their perceptions. In this major, institutional regional theater, however, the audience wanted to sit back and be entertained. That entertainment might come in the form of intellectual stimulation or humor, but not in the form of challenging the artistic norm. Of course, the theater had to respond and stopped producing those experimental pieces, even in its smaller, “black box” theater.
In current Off-Broadway, we are seeing some mixed signals about directions the theaters are taking and the impact of modern economics. On the one hand, financially speaking, everything appears alive and well: One listing lists more than 90 Off-Broadway theaters. Another has 37 shows currently active Off-Broadway with another 27 scheduled to open soon. On the other hand, a contributor to Forbes.com argues that there has been a significant change, particularly since 9/11. He suggests that the only shows that are working Off-Broadway now are immersive productions like a recent adaptation of Sweeney Todd that took place in an actual replica pie shop, parodies like Forbidden Broadway’s Spamilton, or oddball productions like White Rabbit/Red Rabbit, a one-person show performed by a different actor each night with the catch being that the actor has not read the play before performing it. In other words, there has to be some special hook that makes the show sell by word of mouth. This does not detract or impugn the quality of the production. I saw White Rabbit/Red Rabbit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and thought it was a striking, groundbreaking piece in its exploration of the relationship between the writer, the actor, and the audience. I highly recommend it. But it is a different model than the heyday of Off-Broadway’s commitment to new writers and plays.
Is this true of all nonprofits—as they grow, they become the mainstream or the “institution” within their industry? They may continue to do very high quality, important work, but has that all-important rebellious spirit at the root of their founding been coopted?
Perhaps this will cause an unexpected benefit in a dialectical reaction, with the hybrid theaters becoming the thesis and a new breed of experimental, completely non-commercial theaters and artists arising in reaction as the antithesis.
In writing this article, the author has drawn some information for this article from his own experience, but has also relied on various sources such as articles in Wikipedia and the New York Times, an online history of New York Theater, Musicals 101, and especially a particularly well done MFA thesis submitted to Columbia University in 2013 by Katherine Beckett Sullivan.