West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 26 | November 28 - December 04 2007

Photo by Doug Hamilton

From left, Michael Cristofer, Michael Countryman, Bianca Amato, Manoel Felciano and Neal Huff in Peter Parnell’s “Trumpery,” now in previews at the Atlantic Theater Company, and opening December 5.

The lights beyond Broadway

By Nicole Davis

When one stage door closes, another opens. At least, that is one way to look at the stagehand strike that has shuttered Broadway stages since Saturday, Nov. 10, leaving Off- and Off-Off Broadway with thousands of theatergoers in search of a play.

“We’ve seen an increase in ticket sales,” said Andrew Hamingson, managing director of Chelsea’s Atlantic Theater Company, where Peter Parnell’s brilliant play “Trumpery,” about the theory of natural selection and Darwin’s own emotional evolution, is now in previews. At the start of the strike, Hamingson told the house manager and box office manager to ask ticket holders if they had been shut out of Broadway. “And about three out of every 10 were people who had planned on seeing on a Broadway play.”

Attendance shot up at other theaters, particularly those closer to the Theater District, like New World Stages. Executive director Beverley Mac Keen said ticket sales for all seven of their Off-Broadway shows, from “Altar Boyz” to “My First Time,” are up 30 to 40 percent, and they’re selling out completely on the weekends.

“It has been a lemonade from lemons situation, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that we wish the strike to come a quick resolution.” Many producers at New World Stages are also Broadway producers, and Mac Keen is not relishing her success at the expense of her Broadway brethren. “That being said, our sales are through the roof.”

Aside from the monetary boost, the strike has also been an accidental publicity coup for those who equate Off- or Off-Off-Broadway with tiny shoebox theaters far from the Great White Way.

“It’s been an opportunity to penetrate a marketplace that doesn’t understand that the difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway is one seat,” says Mac Keen. As defined by the Actor’s Equity Association, a Broadway theater has 500 seats or above, Off-Broadway theaters have 499-100 seats, and Off-Off-Broadway theaters seat 99 or less, whether they’re in the Theater District or on the Bowery. “It’s amazing how many people don’t know that.”

For those well versed in the New York theater world, however, the strike has meant an even closer combing of the offerings beyond Broadway. “I love me some Broadway,” says playwright Bixby Elliot, who also blogs about theater for Yahoo, “but oftentimes it does not push you or is not ambitious in what it’s trying to explore, and that’s one of the joys of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. It’s a chance to see deeper themes or a work that’s more ambitious.”

One such gem he cites is Jason Grote’s “1001,” now at the Baruch Performing Arts Center’s Nagelberg Theatre, which stayed with him for days afterward. “It essentially uses the Arabian Nights stories as a framework to explore how narrative affects our lives. At its best, it’s as brilliant as Tony Kushner.”

It’s this caliber of work that led Harriet Appel to the Atlantic last week, to catch “Trumpery” with her husband Phil and friend Melvin Fuchs. “We never go to Broadway,” said Appel. The 1994 musical version of “Sunset Boulevard” was the last show they caught — and they walked out in the middle of it. “We think the price is inversely proportionate to the quality,” explained Fuchs.

Even with ardent Off-Broadway fans like these, however, the Atlantic is still being hurt by the stalemate between producers and stagehands on a number of levels.

“I’m glad people are turning to the Atlantic,” said Hamingson. “But each day I am more upset and depressed about the strike.” As one of the 29 producers of “Spring Awakening,” which premiered at the Atlantic, the theater’s weekly losses are in the five figures. But it could stand to loose more as the strike continues. “I think people are not coming to town,” he said, noting the recent uptick in New York flight cancellations reported by Jet Blue. “And that’s going to affect everybody.”

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