New York is arguably the most culturally diverse city on Earth. Is it any coincidence that the city is “synonymous” with so many different things to so many different people? For me, it’s the mecca of all things artistic. Not only is it the birthplace of American punk rock and Beat Generation literature, but it’s also been the center of the theatrical world for more than 100 years. Broadway, or the Great White Way, as it’s often known, is seen as the very pinnacle of artistic success on the stage. Along with London’s West End, it’s one of the best places for any true theatrical force to be seen by patrons and practitioners of the theater. Ah, New York — the city that never sleeps because it’s too busy singing and dancing!
It was this idealized, and slightly naïve, vision of the city that I fell in love with as a teen. A few years later, college degrees in hand and stars in my eyes, I moved to the Big Apple and never looked back; bound and determined to make my name in this exciting community. Okay, I exaggerate just a little. Even then, I was well aware of how gentrification had affected the “bohemian” New York of yore. I knew the life of an artist could be harsh and uncertain. I would likely need to work full time and make some compromises in my living space if I hoped to have a serious go at life in the theater. Little did I know just how much of an impact the rising cost of living had made on the performing arts.
The average price of seeing a show on Broadway is nearly $100 per ticket, much of which goes to cover the outrageous cost of renting a theater. At Theatre Row, an Off-Broadway venue that exists specifically as a forum for lesser-known writers to showcase their work, the cost of renting the Acorn Theater for one weekend is nearly $10K. At the Gene Frankel Theatre, an Off-Off Broadway house, the cost of one weekend’s rental is more than $2K. This cost is so astronomical, it’s pushed many emerging writers out of the city altogether. It isn’t just artists who are feeling the weight of these figures. Producers on Broadway are accustomed to shows not returning their multi-million dollar investments; in fact, only about 40 percent of shows that open on Broadway accomplish this. If a show breaks even, it’s considered a success. Many venues such as the Cherry Lane Theatre, a long-running Off-Broadway house, have been forced to close their doors due to unmanageable rent increases.
Other theaters, such as Off-Off Broadway’s 13th Street Repertory Theater, are fighting eviction over ownership disputes and exorbitant production costs. 13th Street was founded in the ’50s by actress and director Edith O’Hara, who now in her mid-90s continues to run normal operations to this day. While never a major commercial force, the theater was an early forum for playwrights such as Israel Horowitz, to make their names. Horowitz’s plays The Indian Wants the Bronx and Line made their world premieres at 13th Street in the ’60s, featuring actors such as Al Pacino and John Cazale in leading roles. For the past decade, O’Hara has been fighting eviction over disputed ownership with a Philadelphia-based real estate development firm. This, combined with the exorbitant cost of space and materials, has pushed 13th Street Rep to the brink of closure.
I was fortunate enough to perform in a show at 13th Street a year ago. While the theater, with its torn canopy and musty basement interior has clearly seen better days, the pictures on the wall of past productions conjure up images of a bygone era in New York’s theater scene. Today the theater boasts a rotating company of interns and professional actors who organize a variety of shows both original and established. Despite diminished revenues and the increasingly dilapidated state of the space, it’s good to know that at least one theater is fighting the good fight to keep the arts alive in New York. If the theater world had a CBGB, 13th Street would probably be it and I’m glad to have been a part of that.
When theaters aren’t being forced to close due to outrageous costs, others are shut down due to city safety regulations that are wholly out of control. The independent theater company EndTimes Productions has twice been forced to vacate their resident performance spaces. In 2008 their previous theater was shut down for lack of adequate fire escapes, and just this year their current home at Ace of Clubs was closed for similar reasons. Seeing the folks at EndTimes left homeless is hard, as they’re especially close to my heart. They’re an eclectic group with a unique vision of what theater is and what it can accomplish. With so many of their plays revolving around zombies, aliens and pop culture, it’s little wonder I’ve worked with them on three separate occasions.
With a lack of available space, many of these fledgling theater companies are now folding after just a couple productions. Time passes and things change, but the future of tomorrow’s performing artists in New York has never felt more uncertain. These days, creative types such as myself work full-time jobs to pay the bills and keep roofs over our heads, relegating our artistic endeavors to a strictly nights and weekends basis. Is this just belly-aching over the onslaught of gentrification? Maybe a little, but with New York’s rich heritage in the arts, it feels like even more is at stake.
It’s painful to think that the current generation of artists may be priced out of the very city that gave rise to the previous groups that inspired them. Other parts of the country such as Washington D.C. and Philadelphia are already giving rise to their own theatrical communities, which are beginning to rival New York with the richness of their offerings. I don’t have any easy solutions to the endangered state of independent theater, except to say I hope it experiences a turnaround soon. I shudder to think that the next generation of artists and thinkers will look to Mamma Mia! as the gold standard of New York theater because it’s the only thing left.