Brooklyn Boro

New York’s small theaters are persevering, but rising rents pose a threat

December 9, 2019 Victoria Merlino
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New York City’s industry of small theaters rivals Broadway’s economic might, but rising real estate prices and increasing operating costs pose an existential threat, according to a new first-of-its-kind study from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

The 748 smaller theater organizations, which can power cultural conversations in communities far from the lights of Broadway, generate $1.3 billion a year, despite a turbulent climate filled with high theater turnover and rising costs. In comparison, Broadway shows netted a combined $1.825 billion in 2018, according to statistics from industry trade group The Broadway League.

These smaller theaters, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, give New Yorkers opportunities to build their communities, are a proving ground for new talent and can even inspire social change, according to the study.

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“NYC’s dynamic, vibrant, iconic theater industry simply couldn’t exist without our rich ecosystem of small theaters,” said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl. “Smaller venues are where exciting ideas and new talent get to connect with audiences.”

Defining the small theater industry

Broadway remains a major draw for tourists traveling to New York City, with its big-name actors, multimillion dollar productions and glittering lights.

However, New York City also has a vast ecosystem of off-Broadway and off-off Broadway production companies, theaters and organizations with ticket prices that can appeal more to the average New Yorker.

Whether a theater is considered Broadway, off-Broadway off-off Broadway generally boils down to its capacity and its location.

Broadway theaters traditionally have 500 or more seats, and are located in Midtown Manhattan’s Theater District, or “Theater Box.” Off-Broadway theaters have capacities of 100 to 499 and are usually located outside the Theater District, but still in Manhattan. Off-off Broadway theaters are the smallest, located in the other boroughs and have a capacity of 99 seats or less. Though Broadway venues are usually commercial, most of the theaters of the other two types are nonprofit entities.

The definitions easily start to get muddied, however, as some theaters exist outside of these parameters. The study mentions Brooklyn Heights’ St. Ann’s Warehouse, which boasts more than 500 seats but is outside of Manhattan, as an example of a theater that eludes the easy definitions.

The triumphs…

Small theaters across New York City offer artists and their communities spaces in which they are more free to experiment and expand their understanding of what theater can be.

“The community absolutely needs the Secret Theatre,” its founder, Richard Mazda, told the Eagle. The Off-Off Broadway theater, which is located in Long Island City, showcases an eclectic mix of musicals, dance, plays and classes, as well as children’s theater. The children’s theater is especially important, Mazda said, as it draws more people into the industry from a young age.

“We’re the only theater in Queens that does regular children’s theater,” he said, noting that two of his shows are the longest-running children’s shows in the borough. “This is a borough of 2.2 million people.”

Richard Madza, founder of Long Island City’s Secret Theatre, inside the theatre’s auditorium. Photo: Victoria Merlino/Brooklyn Eagle

The industry is growing, according to the study, with more than 280 theaters opening since 2011, and the industry provides more than 8,400 full-time jobs.

Smaller theaters can also be more attuned to the needs of the neighborhoods they serve, and present an affordable way to view high-quality productions.

“We’re in Brooklyn, and the vibrancy and creative energy of our neighborhood is immediately apparent to our audiences,” Katy Clark, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, told the Eagle. “We’re easily accessible to anyone in NYC, but we’re also a ‘hometown’ institution for those who feel Brooklyn pride.”

She mentioned the organization’s BAM Fisher space , which was designed to be particularly inclusive and affordable, with most tickets at $25. BAM Fisher was completed in 2012 with a maximum of 250 seats, and offers artists “the freedom to experiment,” Clark said.

… and the challenges

Funding for theater programs continues to be a challenge. Turnover is high, and though 280 organizations have opened since 2011, more than 100 small theater organizations have closed in the same period, with a “significant” number closing in Brooklyn and Queens, according to the study. The study points to increasing operating costs and rising rents as part of the reason for the increased turnover.

“The rapidly increasing costs of real estate has had a remarkably adverse impact on small theaters,” the study reads. Commercial rents have skyrocketed in the last decade, with citywide retail vacancies resting at 5.8 percent in 2017, up from 4 percent in 2007, according to a September report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx had higher rates than average.

Mazda said it is difficult to keep a small theater afloat, especially a for-profit one like The Secret Theatre, a rarity in Queens and across the city. The study found that 96 percent, or 724, operate as nonprofits.

The economics of an Off-Off Broadway theater, where ticket prices are low and there is a low seating capacity, could mean only a few thousand dollars per week to pay for lights, heat, rent and wages. He said that the Secret Theatre is looking into becoming a nonprofit to secure its continued survival.

“I feel really beaten up by 10 years of walking a financial tightrope,” Mazda said.

“The community needs [theater], which is true as a statement, but it’s not a strong statement when you’re writing a grant,” he said.

The Secret Theatre hosts musicals, plays, dance performances and children’s theater. Photo: Victoria Merlino/Brooklyn Eagle

Nonprofits face their own set of financial challenges.

“As the report stated, nonprofit theaters rely heavily on public and private contributions,” Clark said of BAM. “So fundraising is an ongoing challenge for BAM as it is for our colleagues.”

Clark encouraged those who want to support their local theaters to see their shows and donate, if possible. BAM now sees more than half of its audience coming from its community in Brooklyn, and Clark hopes BAM will continue to grow as it sees more local support.

“Right now, many donors, though not all, tend to prioritize Manhattan, even when they live or operate in other boroughs,” she said. “Supporting your local theaters is just as important as supporting local businesses. And you will reap benefits in the long run as this helps the local economy to thrive.”

The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs provided $45.6 million this financial year to support 383 organizations working in theater or the multidisciplinary arts, and is the largest arts funder in the nation after the federal government

Madza believes city government should give more money to fund the arts and place more emphasis on it.

“We’re one of the reasons that people visit New York, so some of the tourism dollars are down to us,” he said. “You don’t come to New York to the beaches necessarily as a vacationer. You don’t come to get a suntan. You come to New York for culture.”

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  1. Mike Suko

    Just as Facebook somehow acquired Instagram & Whatsapp, it’s high time that St. Ann’s acquires BAM’s theater “operation,” because it’s crystal clear that BAM doesn’t have a clue how to avoid losing money it doesn’t have … except by keeping its theaters DARK.

    Sad that BAM – with a rich history of live theatre – is now little more than a very eccentric multiplex cinema. THIS at a time when Brooklyn is hitting the ball out of the park on multiple fronts.

    The article wasn’t written by someone at all knowledgeable about NY’s theatre scene (or Brooklyn’s), which is very sad. Neither the Heights Players nor the Gallery Players get so much as a mention. (Nor the very fine and intriguing Polonsky Center.) Yes, changing tastes have dealt theatre some terrible blows – far worse than even opera. 5 or 10 non-musicals get top-flight productions each year – down from 50 not all THAT long ago.

    I’m happy to give Marty Markowitz credit for bringing sports back to our boro in a big way. Too bad neither he nor anyone before him or since seems to give 2 hoots about “the arts.” With all the building going on in 11201 and a neighboring zipcode or 2, someone in City or Boro Government should have insisted on something beside a mere handful of “lottery apartments.”

    Instead, neither the infrastructure nor cultural life has gotten more than pennies. The 2-3-4-5 lines are dead men walking between Atlantic Avenue and 14th Street, along with the 2 bridges serving downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the upcoming BQE work will deal mass transit a knockout punch. We needed a first class resident Mayor for the last 8 years. Instead, we got a pathetic Don Quixote imitator.