Theaterworks sets up shop in Gotham

NEW YORK — It’s taken almost half a century, but TheaterworksUSA is trying to make it in New York.

Though its offices are in Gotham, the 45-year-old producer of family theater has always been itinerant, touring original adaptations of kidlit to 49 states. But as the company prepares to launch its 45th season, staffers are ready to expand their presence in family entertainment. The first step is staking a claim Off Broadway.

Theaterworks brass wants to brand the company as a destination for auds and commercial producers seeking top-drawer family work. Legitimization of a permanent New York roost is a key part of that process.

Therefore, in addition to its annual tours, which mount 5,200 perfs per year of titles such as “Junie B. Jones,” “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Theaterworks will stage three-show seasons at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel.

The company had a Lortel run last year, presenting more lavish versions of road hits like “A Christmas Carol” and “Sarah, Plain and Tall.” But starting with the Nov. 16 bow of “Great Expectations,” starring Kathleen Chalfant and Christian Campbell, the Lortel will be used solely for premieres.

The gamble is big. New York’s family legit market is dominated by the Disney juggernaut and youth-oriented presenter New Victory (which has a plum 42nd Street locale as opposed to the Lortel’s more tucked-away West Village address). Why would a company already operating successfully on an $11 million budget try to muscle in with the giants?

Artistic director Barbara Pasternack says, “The previous leadership was happy with presenting a weekend or two at (New York’s) Promenade, in front of whatever show was installed there. We just wanted more. In New York, we realized we weren’t strongly branded in the theater community. Nobody knows what we do.”

What Theaterworks generally does is option blockbuster youth properties and hire Gotham talent to adapt them. In the best cases, the result is a hit like “Junie B. Jones,” which grossed more than $2 million last year, despite playing scores of free dates.

Theaterworks also has a reputation for discovering talent, claiming alums like Henry Winkler, director Jerry Zaks and writers Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx (“Avenue Q”).

But reputation only gets you so far, especially when productions are constrained by the road. On tour, shows usually feature pre-recorded music and limited sets that thesps dismantle themselves before hopping in the van.

But in a permanent New York space, things can get spruced up. The average budget for a Lortel show is around $350,000 — three times what’s spent on the road. The money covers name-brand talent, enhanced design, live musicians and services from press and marketing firms.

“You’re not going to get Kathleen Chalfant to get in a van and send her on a tour,” Pasternack says. “But getting someone like her to do ‘Great Expectations’ was very much a branding choice.”

A Gotham profile could also increase the theater’s fund-raising support. Unlike most nonprofits, 90% of Theaterworks’ budget comes from ticket sales, creating greater pressure to pick sure-fire hits.

“We have been reliant on box office,” says managing director Ken Arthur. “The Lortel already has served as a platform to help us approach funders and say, ‘With your help, we could do (more).'”

Last season, for instance, Theaterworks was able to bring reps from Target to the Lortel run of “A Christmas Carol.” Impressed by the show, the corporation funded several legs of Theaterworks’ tours.

Asked about her fund-raising goals, Pasternack says, “It would be nice to do things in New York that are not always title driven, to be able to go to a fantastic playwright and say, ‘What do you want to write?’ But I don’t know if that will ever be a possibility.”

Both Pasternack and Arthur also want to develop a theatergoing habit in young people. This season, for instance, all Lortel tickets are $25, but it will take outside support to maintain that cap in the future.

There also are more practical motives behind the theater’s New York ambition. Arthur says he wants to expand earning potential on hit projects, securing Theaterworks a stake in additional revenues from transfers, cast albums or television series based on titles developed by the company.

He says, “We feel it’s important that we carve out enough rights so that if there is an upside on a show we will participate as a corporation.”

But the immediate challenge for Theaterworks is to stand out amid the family theater powerhouses.

Asked if there’s pressure to compete, Arthur quips, “Well, Disney could swallow us all, but I don’t think it’s a competition. New York has 1.2 million children in it, and you have to share.”

Pasternack concedes that the company has a long road to New York primacy. “We’re 45 years old, but we’re the new kids in a way,” she says. “We have things to learn, and we have impressions to make.”

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