Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Funny Thing Happening on the Appian Way

Wherin I ramble incoherently about theater. Here goes.

So... here's a funny thing about off-off-Broadway. First of all, the size of what constitutes "off-off-Broadway"* is freakin' huge. Although the New York Fringe Festival has a lot of out-of-town companies putting on shows, I'd guess that it somewhat fairly represents a solid percentage of the off-off-Broadway world.
They're running something on the order of 197 shows in 18 venues this year. And that's just a festival in freakin' August.

So off-off-Broadway is alive and there are a LOT of producers producing it. And most of them are willing to spend thousands of dollars only to get hundreds of dollars back from ticket sales. And then do the whole thing again next year.

Why can they only get pennies-on-the-dollar from producing? It's because it's so hard to get people to buy tickets to your show, that's why. If you're only doing 12 shows and you have a 50-seat house you have to get 600 people to buy tickets to sell out.

Unfortunately, getting butts in seats (to put it crassly) is usually the last thing on the producer's mind when producing a show. They have lots of other problems. The lighting company wants more money. The lead actress lost weight and her costume has to be re-built. The lead actor decided he forgot that he had to go visit his great-aunt in South Carolina during the second week of your show and now you need to replace him (and be talked down from having him shot by a professional hit-man.) But the show will go up, don't worry about that. The big problem is that you have to sell tickets.

And the reality has been that the theater world in NYC has been held hostage by the New York Times. Now honestly in the off-off-Broadway world a terrible review in the Times (if it comes out early enough in the run) can still add upwards of a dozen tickets per night sold to a show. And a dozen tickets at the Equity mandated ceiling of $18 for six nights is an extra $1296 in the producer's pocket which will certainly help defray costs of the cast party at the end of the run, but it ain't buying you a set for next year's production.

So anyway, for an off-off-Broadway show a review, any review, by the New York Times (if it comes out during the run and not after the show has closed) is a goode thinge.

But at the same time a show with larger ambitions -- like moving up to off-Broadway, or (egads!) Broadway, is for all intents and purposes dictated by the New York Times giving a good review.

The Times critics' can simply close a play at that level with a stroke of a pen. A bed review = pretty much instant death unless Disney is producing Uptown or you have lots of naked boys with perfect abs in the show downtown. Otherwise one reviewer will decide whether you break even or take a bath on your show.

Just one. From the New York Times.

Not Newsday. Not the New York Post. Not the Daily News. The only one that matters is the damned New York Times.

I mean, until now.

[And to aside here: once at Theatresource a review from the Times' came in for "Title of Show" (which actually is our only show to go on to a Broadway run). The review was very good and the producer started singing in a sing-song voice "I'm not going to take a bath on this show! I'm not going to take a bath on this show!" And I thought -- deal Lord! That's the upside! Not taking a bath. Theater is worse than the movie business. I found it much amusing. I honestly don't think she realized she was singing it out loud until I congratulated her. ]

But that "one reviewer from the Times" issue is getting less and less important for off-off-Broadway. Primarily because of OffOffOnline. Arguably the editorial stance of OOO is so adamantly pro theater that they really don't give a lot of points to their writers for writing witty and scathing reviews (unlike the Times').  So they tend to be more fair. Maybe even over fair but that's another story (and one I don't care about).

The important thing is that people will actually buy tickets to a little off-off-Broadway show based on a review in OOO.

Buy tickets. And come see the show.

And that's a big freakin' deal. Because it's so hard to produce a show and get people to show up to it. You can do normal publicity, you can hand out postcards everywhere in the world, but basically your audience is the friends and family of the actors, the writer, and the director.

[So only hire actors, writers, and directors, from broken homes (so there are two sets of parents) and who hang out at bars at night and have a lot of friends.

And no, I'm not kidding. The "broken home" thing only works with child actors though. Does this aside need an aside? Of course it does. I have a friend who used to produce shows at the Kraine and he did a show where he hired this gorgeous woman, who really didn't act, to do a walk-on part. She was a very popular girl and had a lot of friends who helped sell out the show. True story. And a lesson in economics.]

In any case. It's nice to see that off-off-Broadway has a way around the New York Times. Now, off Broadway producers? Broadway producers? Not so much. But at least the little guy in the off-off-Broadway works has a screamin' chance to... well... not take a bath.
*"Off-off-Broadway" is actually a technical term which relates to the particular contract the producer has with Actors Equity. So you can have a "Broadway" show anywhere in the city, and you can be "off" or even "off-off-Broadway" and actually have your theater on the street called Broadway. Yes, it'll likely be below Canal but it will be on that same Broadway. All you really need to understand is that the contract has to do with the size of the theater and the amount the actors get paid (if any).
From Allatok. Via Bill Martell.

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