Off-Broadway goes upscale

New sites, facelifts give hot playwrights venues they deserve

Throughout the 1990s, Off Broadway proved itself the true home for innovative American theater. But it wasn’t until the last few years that the homes began looking as sharp as the productions they housed.

Now, many Off Broadway theaters and producers are focusing on the venues themselves by seeking new locations and facilities or undergoing facelifts to become more upscale and provide amenities that match the rise in ticket prices.

“Most theaters are charging at least $40 but they haven’t been state-of-the-art and haven’t been very comfortable,” says theater vet Andrew McTiernan, who with developer Lee Davis is opening a 199-seat house with a brand-new power and sound system in an old zipper factory on West 37th Street, calling it the Zipper.

In recent years, the biggest changes have been in the Times Square area, although the movement is being felt throughout the city. Second Stage moved into a custom-created 299-seat house from its old 108-seat site, while the Signature Theater went from being renters to having a permanent 160-seat home on 42nd Street.

Now the 42nd Street Development Corp. is building Off Broadway venues along Theater Row between 9th and 10th avenues, while Playwrights Horizons is erecting a new home and the Shubert Organization is constructing a 499-seat Off Broadway house for productions that could transfer to Broadway.

These Theater Row showcases all raised extra money by selling air rights for residential towers to developers caught up in New York’s building craze.

Fred Papert, who heads the 42nd Street Development Corp., says “an enormous amount is still being planned,” including the redevelopment of other theaters in the area row such as the John Houseman and Douglas Fairbanks, although there is no timetable and the economic slowdown could delay further tower developments.

Demand exceeds space

McTiernan, who’s also in negotiations for a 299-seat space in Theater Row, says the timing is finally right for such a move.

“In the late 1990s, I was laughed at by real estate agents who were taking advantage of the boom,” he says, adding that his company, New York Performance Works, lost a downtown space because dot-com companies sparked a massive rent increase.

With the economy slowing and the Netcos dying, he continues, landlords are very interested in having a long-term tenant like a theater.

McTiernan says the city desperately needs more Off Broadway houses, adding that he recently couldn’t find spaces for two plays that had financing in place.

Jon Steingart, who with Jenny Wiener produced Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” had to return money to investors for one production when they couldn’t find an available venue.

And some places, he says, like the West Side Arts Theater, with “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” have such long-running hits that the theater is essentially off the market.

“Without question, real estate is a hot topic,” adds Weiner. “People in the theater industry talk about it all the time.”

However, Roy Gabay, general manager of such hits as “Wit,” says the new theaters are part of a cycle and that the economic downturn could result in a glut of empty sites if producers can’t raise money for new productions.

Producer Daryl Roth vehemently disagrees, saying, “It is essential to have new venues for commercial productions. The need will always be there.”

Size matters

They both concur, however, that size does matter, with the Shubert’s new 499-seat theater filling Off Broadway’s most pressing need.

Gabay feels that 299-seat commercial theaters are becoming only marginally viable and that 199-seat spaces will soon be obsolete for commercial productions beyond a one-person show. “You could only afford to do ‘Wit’ in a theater with 499 seats.”

Meanwhile, many prominent nonprofit theaters are upgrading their facilities — not just for audience comfort but to improve lighting and sound quality. The Classic Stage Co. did a renovation last year and the Vineyard is undertaking a capital campaign.

The latter’s founder, Barbara Zinn Krieger, says the expansion from 130 to 190 seats, and planned improvement of the facade and box office area are designed to give the theater a visual feel that will match its critical reputation.

“That’s what a facelift will do for us. We have to look like who we are.”

Gabay says most theaters are spending what they can afford, with commercial theaters often being forced to keep up with the nonprofits who can find the money more readily from donors.

Not all are up to par, he notes, citing the Minetta Lane Theater — which housed such critical hits as “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” — as one that “could use a major overhaul.”

Margaret Cotter, executive director of the Minetta Lane, the Orpheum, and the Union Square theaters, says she feels no pressure to keep pace. The work that others are doing “doesn’t make me want to run out and renovate the theater.”

Of course, Steingart says some Off Broadway shows thrive in alternative spaces and some theaters make the most of keeping their downtown feel, pointing to a place like the Jane Street Theater, which recently hosted “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a show that might have seemed out of place elsewhere.

To a large extent, the future of these existing theaters and any new spaces depend on factors far beyond the control of playwrights, actors and artistic directors. Ginny Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance for Regional Theaters (ART New York), says nonprofits see their funding from government, foundations and individuals grow during booms, but that nonprofits and commercial venues have fewer opportunities to find affordable space. An economic downturn could change everything, however.

“It will be interesting to see in 2002 what repercussions a bear market will have,” she says.

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