Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Are there too many theater companies in New York?

Last week, I attended a League of Independent Theater meeting, in which Leonard Jacobs interviewed Robert Zimmerman of NYSCA. It was a very impressive interview - Zimmerman is a great and inspiring advocate for the arts, and has a way with words (his training as an actor came in handy, too). But as I sat and listened, I found myself increasingly stressed out. One reason was the obvious - there is less and less money available. The other side of the coin is also something anyone who has been paying attention in New York is aware of as well - while the budgets shrink, the number of theater companies grow.

There was once a time when entrepeneurs like Lynne Meadow could form a small Off-Off-Broadway company called Manhattan Theater Club, receive steady reviews for their work, a $10,000 grant from NYSCA (more like $50,000 or more in today's dollars), and soon be off and running towards being a major New York company.

Not to diminish her accomplishment, but if Lynne Meadow were to try to start up MTC today, she would be in competition with about 800 registered non-profits (excluding the many unregistered companies around the city). Receiving a a major review would be a matter of a way to present her work that popped through the thousands of press releases that go out to the diminishing number of publications around the city. If she were lucky enough to receive a review in the Times, it would be buried on page 8 where even a rave would bring it, at best, a slight bump in prestige, maybe 100 extra audience members, and just enough to push her to scrounge for the money to present her next show....and hope it does as well. Which would be a long shot.

In maybe 10 or 20 years she would have put on enough good work that among her fellows (those being the other 800 companies), her work would be respected. Those colleagues would sincerely pledge to come to her next thing, a few would manage to make it, others would be in production for their own show, others would be at one of the other hundreds of productions around the city like hers, and others would be sitting at home, watching tv or reading a book, recovering from burn out.

Meanwhile NYSCA may have paid enough attention to give her maybe $2,500 to start, maybe $5,000 if she is doing continuously well. This will pay for 1 - 2 weeks in an inexpensive theater space.

What will become of her? I don't know. Becuase she is like me, of course - and all my colleagues who are strruggling to create theater here in New York. Our generation, lacking entrance into theater institutions, has gone the entrepeneurial route. But so many of us have done so that it is almost impossible, even for the most devoted, to keep up with it all. Martin Denton at nytheatre.com does the best - God bless him. He would estimate the number of companies to be over 1,000.

Zimmerman has said he has never seen so much good, interesting work as he sees right now in New York. It is not surprising. I was do a show with 22 actors (Cat's Cradle) all of whom all had to sing and play an instrument, and then added a bunch of requirements on top of that - a mixture of ethnicities, a tall woman who could play the clarinet, a little person, etc etc. And I cast it. On an Equity Showcase contact, which meant all they were paid were expenses.

The human resources and talent in this city are tremendous. I love the fact that I know some of the most talented people I have seen anywhere, in any situation, and I work with them constantly. I hate the fact that none of us get paid a significant amount for our work.

Why are there so many companies, so many people here? It's true that if a show is succesful here it gets national attention. But I constantly wonder of the wisdom of working in a city where there is so much else competeing for funding and attention.

But is it better nationally? There are more books written every year, yet fewer books read. When I send a book into a publisher, I am praying it gets beyond the thousands they constantly receieve. Is this a function of a greater population? Of a greater need to express ourselves? If the world were filled with nothing but artists, how would we find people to listen to our art?

And yet...if the world is filled with artists, if this nation has more artists each year, why does the fact that the NEA gave us $50 million out of a $700 billion stimulus bill become a matter for such controversy?

My stress level is rising again...

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