Forum on Small Theatres Brings Ideas For Change 

 
3/17/2009 

On February 17, 2009 Manhattan Community Boards 1 through 5 jointly hosted a Public Forum on The State of Small To Mid-Sized Theaters. Hundreds of attendees crammed into the Player’s Club to show their support for the community, share their experiences and begin the discussion about “Developing Strategies in this time of Crisis and Opportunity.” In an effort to examine the problem from multiple points of view, the panel and speakers included a variety of people with a stake in this issue and ranged from Off-Off-Broadway (OOB) directors to elected officials (a complete list of panelists is below).
 
Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President, began the evening by reaffirming that theatre, and especially OOB, is an important part of what makes New York City vibrant, “The 45 million tourists are not coming here to see our big buildings… The reason they come is because they want to see our art and our talent.” Many of the speakers echoed this sentiment agreeing that small theatres benefit their communities, feed New York City both culturally and economically, and contribute to the revitalization of some areas. OOB was established as being nimble, creative, lean and very active: qualities that will enable us to weather the current recession better than many of our larger counterparts.
 
However, this raises the question of how do companies who are already working close to the bone cut an additional 10% - 15% of “fat,” when there is no fat to cut? Noting the decrease in individual and foundation giving, Ben Cameron, Arts Program Director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, acknowledged that “theatre and artists have felt the plunges [of the recession] as acutely as any.” When seeking solutions to the current crisis, Cameron prompted us to push “past your comfort zone with your best knowledge, your best information, your best counsel because we know a business that does not risk does not grow.”
 
The panel discussion identified two major issues that most significantly hinder the growth of OOB: chronic lack of funds and chronic lack of space. Not surprisingly, these two topics were also the most passionately debated and often set panelists at odds with one another.
 
Both Virginia Louloudes, Executive Director of ART/NY and Cameron espoused the unencumbered benefits of not owning a space in this economy. Louloudes noted that companies that “produce in spaces that they don’t own are probably the healthiest because they don’t have to worry about rent and maintenance.”  While John Clancy, Executive Director of the League of Independent Theatre, was adamant that, “we need space before we need money.”
 
Tamara Greenfield, Executive Director of FAB, suggested seeking alternative rehearsal and performance spaces.  For example, she has produced performances in a public pool during off months. Kevin Cunningham, Executive Artistic Director of Three Legged Dog, responded “some theatre can’t be done that way. Some work has to have a good equipment base. It has to have a place for the audience to be. It has to have a comfortable place for artists to sit and work.”
 
One of the most vigorous debates was whether stimulus money would actually reach OOB. Louloudes maintained that “we can’t ask for more money from anybody because there’s no more money. It’s gone guys.” However Paul Nagel, Director of Cultural Policy from Councilmember Alan Gerson’s office countered that “there’s hundreds of millions of dollars coming down to the states and the cities and I think that there’s no reason that that money can’t be going into cultural projects as well as any other economic development or small business.” Assemblymember Daniel J. O’Donnell from the 69th State Assembly District,agreed saying that he believed some of the stimulus money may reach us in the form of a capital fund for the arts.
 
Many suggestions on how to overcome our current challenges were put forward including: seeking collaborations and cost sharing situations, keeping ticket prices low to entice audiences, finding new ways of fundraising like teaching classes or joining forces with local business, sharing resources, embracing technology to drive down costs, and expanding to an international scale if need be. However, as Melody Brooks, Artistic Director of the New Perspectives Theatre Company pointed out, “these are not new ideas… we’ve been doing it for 60 years; making do, finding our audience, going where we need to go.”
 
Some of the ideas required a more radical approach, such as the suggestion by Brad Burgess, Administrative Director of The Living Theatre, that productions with budgets over one million dollars be required to contribute to a general theatre fund which could be accessed by smaller theaters.  A similar system in professional sports works to funnel revenue to minor league teams.
 
Other ideas included: regulations that would guarantee that a portion of city-administered grants be set aside specifically for smaller companies (with $100,000 or less budgets); exploring new for-profit/not-for-profit hybrid organizational models; setting up a “clearinghouse” designed to match city-run facilities that have available space with not-for-profits that are in need of space; changing language in small business funding that currently excludes many small theatres and nonprofits based on definitions of “revenue” and “employees”; and tax incentives for commercial real estate owners that include space for not-for-profits and/or arts organizations.
 
Amidst all the ideas and debate, perhaps the most significant and promising development was that the community boards expressed their commitment to advocate for our community.  These boards are often the first to respond to community concerns and make recommendations to elected officials about the city budgets and neighborhood land use. As Paul Bartlett, Chair of Community Board 3’s Arts Task Force explained, “The unique thing about community boards is that the public officials and elected officials are accountable to us… and what we are going to articulate in boards 1 through 5 is that arts and theatre is important in our districts.” To that end, Stringer encouraged us to hold our elected officials to a higher standard and create a “road map” of what changes would benefit our community.
 
So, what’s the takeaway?
 
This public forum succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of people to engage in spirited conversation about small theater in New York City.  It was a successful show of support, but action must follow to create actual change.  Many speakers called on the audience to stay activated and involved.  “It is unbelievable how few people it takes, on message, to move a politician,” said Nagle. If we stay motivated, Stringer said, “I promise you, that you will keep this issue alive in the ‘09 election and in the 2010 election and eventually people are going to get it: that theatre is good for business, good for the next generation, good for people who look at New York in a way that makes us the most exciting place on Earth.”
 

ACTION ITEMS
Here's what you can do now:

  1. Advocate for NYSCA funding. Submit a 1-page impact or support statement about NYSCA. You can email it to info@nyitawards.com. We will collect and forward them.

  2. Help keep theatre and OOB a priority by attending community board meetings, sharing your experiences and speaking up.  Check back about important events where your voice is needed.

  3. Send letters to your elected officials and representatives (click here for addresses). Bring their attention to the two issues below and ask for their support:
            - Expanding 421A to include tax breaks for developers who include ground floor
               cultural spaces
            - Support Council Member Gerson's tax abatement legislation for landlords who
               rent to non-profit theatres


Public Forum Resource Page
Check out the transcripts of this event, listen to the audio recordings or watch the YouTube videos. We also include other important links.

Follow-Up
On Tuesday, March 10th, the Arts Task Force of Community Board 3 met at Theater for the New City to discuss the forum and events that have occurred since the Public Forum.
Go here for more about this.

Speakers & Panelists
Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President; Anthony Borelli, Director of Land Use for the Manhattan Borough President; Ben Cameron, Program Director of the Doris Duke Foundation; Kevin Cunningham, Executive Artistic Director of 3 Legged Dog; Virginia Louloudes, ART/NY; Judith Malina, Founding Director of the Living Theater; John Clancy the Executive Director of the League of Independent Theatre; Katie Denny, President of SNEAC (Student Network Exploring Arts and Culture) at Wagner NYU; and Paul Nagle, Director of Cultural Policy for Councilmember Alan Gerson.

Related Articles
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
A Class Act, by Dave Edson - 2/21/09
Stage Struggles, The New York Press - 4/17/09



 

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