Theatre is a lot more than just Broadway

The Broadway theatre district is astonishingly small. The world of theatre in the United States (or even New York City) is far bigger than that.

Playhouses and troupes beyond Broadway generate $584 million in economic benefit. But dependence on volunteer labor is high.

Heather Alicia Simms and Charles Browning in “Fairview,” which began at the tiny Soho Rep theater and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Heather Alicia Simms and Charles Browning in “Fairview,” which began at the tiny Soho Rep theater and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama.Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

By Michael Paulson

  • Nov. 20, 2019

Broadway has the bright lights. But the world of New York theater stretches far beyond Times Square.

A new study, commissioned by the mayor’s office and released on Wednesday, finds that the city is home to 748 Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theater organizations responsible for 3,000 jobs.

But there is also quite a bit of churn: The study reveals that more than 280 theater organizations were established in the city since 2011, while more than 100 closed.

The study was overseen by the office of media and entertainment, and conducted by the consulting firms BuroHappold Engineering and 3×3 Design.

It argues that small venue theaters — the term it uses for the range of New York City theaters beyond Broadway — have an outsize cultural influence, often nurturing risky work, and reaching a wider audience with more affordable tickets.

And it suggests a link between the nonprofit theater world and the growing production of streaming content in the city, noting that some of the same artists work in both areas.

The study calculates that theaters aside from Broadway are responsible for $584 million in direct annual economic output, and estimates $1.3 billion in “direct, indirect and induced benefits.”

“Traditionally people have viewed this as a niche sector, but we found it’s a significant contributor to the creative sector in New York City, and also a significant economic driver,” said Anne del Castillo, the commissioner of the city agency.

And the study cites the success of recent shows such as “Hadestown” (first presented at New York Theater Workshop) and “The Band’s Visit” (at Atlantic Theater Company), each of which eventually reached Broadway and won the Tony Award for best new musical, as well as “Hamilton” (at the Public Theater) and “Fairview” (at Soho Rep), each of which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (“Hamilton” also won the Tony).

Del Castillo said she was hopeful that the study would help spur greater support for smaller theaters from donors as well as patrons and government officials.

Not surprisingly, the study identifies two related challenges facing Off and Off-Off Broadway companies: money and real estate. In a dry nod to persistent low salaries for rank-and-file theater workers, the report observes, “Employees are frequently faced with unstable compensation structures in comparison to other cultural sectors, such as television, film or other media.”

Among the study’s findings:

  • Of the 748 small venue theater organizations identified by the city, 97 present work at a regular location, 51 are part of larger organizations, and 600 are production companies — nomadic nonprofits.
  • Most of the nonprofit theater venues are in Manhattan (and below Central Park), with 30 percent in Midtown and 15 percent near the East Village and Lower East Side.
  • Almost all of the theaters outside Broadway are nonprofits — just 24 of the 748 are commercial. (This is the inverse of the economic landscape on Broadway, where 35 of the 41 theaters are operated as commercial ventures.)
  • The small theaters have a total of 51,779 seats on 226 stages, many of which have fewer than 99 seats.
  • The industry depends on more than 9,000 nonsalaried volunteers. This is especially the case at small organizations: 92 percent of the labor at organizations with budgets under $100,000 is performed by volunteers.
  • Smaller theaters are particularly dependent on philanthropy and government grants; the larger the organization, the more they are generally able to raise from box office sales.

Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion, and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson

One thought on “Theatre is a lot more than just Broadway

  1. On top of the NYC theaters- you have all of the theater districts across the country. As in- the tours. I live in Charlotte, so it has Blumenthal Performing Arts (that is what I rely on to see musicals). If it wasn’t for Blumenthal, being a musical theater fanatic would be much harder.

    Liked by 1 person

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