Off Off Broadway scene suffering

25% of venues in West Village, Midtown close

‘Tis the season to announce closings. According to a survey from the New York Innovative Theater Foundation, more than 25% of the Off Off Broadway venues in New York’s theater-heavy West Village and Midtown neighborhoods have closed in the last five years.

The study indicates that about 500 small theater companies are still active, producing about 1,700 shows in the city’s 175 regularly used venues last year. Stats are down considerably and may dip further — and other theaters will hit the chopping block if the economy doesn’t turn around.

The foundation found several causes for the downturn, which has left the Tank, the Provincetown Playhouse and Michael Imperioli’s Studio Dante homeless and may yet claim the Mint Theater’s performing space as well (the Mint’s lease extends through August 2010).

Chiefly, escalating rent has priced smaller companies out of their spaces, especially in Midtown, where some 20 venues have been closed or repurposed since last year. Frequently, though, theater companies simply aren’t offered lease renewals. Some of the properties have been converted to office space, while others have been left vacant until a new tenant can be found. A major problem, said one potential theater landlord, is dwindling faith in the ability of small theater companies to come up with $120,000 a year in rent.

A tiny theater won’t be able to charge much for the few seats it has, so Off Off companies (playing in spaces of fewer than 100 seats) are usually dependent on donors and grant money for their continued existence.

With sources of funding drying up all over the city, landlords know theater budgets are even shakier than usual. Moreover, a quiet business with nine-to-five office hours will put less strain on the building’s physical facilities than a 60-seat theater with actors and crew riding the elevators at all hours of the day and night. So landlords have plenty of incentive to look elsewhere for tenants.

The result is fewer playhouses all over New York, with even more on the endangered list — besides the Mint, the 13th St. Rep, Wings Theater and Epiphany Theater all appear vulnerable.

The only silver lining seems to be an uptick in performances in the outer boroughs and the East Village, which now produces nearly as much Off Off theater as Midtown. Pundits expect the migration away from the Broadway district to continue.

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