Theater stumbles as dollar tumbles

Despite flocking tourists, production costs up

The weaker dollar is a double-edged sword for New York legit. On one hand, overseas visitors are flocking to the U.S. for bargain-priced shopping sprees — and tourists love to see a Broadway show. And many Americans forgoing European vacations to stay within the States also are coming to New York and sampling its theater.

But for many Gotham legit producers and resident companies, the dollar is a real headache. Broadway has a steady stream of imports, such as “The 39 Steps,” “Boeing-Boeing” and “Sunday in the Park With George,” from the current crop, as do venues like Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Whether it’s commercial producers, not-for-profit presenting houses or international legit festivals, bringing over productions from Britain or elsewhere, the falling dollar can add a significant chunk to their original budget, impacting everything from salaries to per-diems.Rialto producers who are part of the long-standing legit pipeline between London and Gotham are feeling the squeeze from the sinking greenback. And Gotham nonprofit presenters that specialize in importing limited runs of productions from abroad are in a bind: The companies find themselves trying to produce the same programming load with a budget that’s steadily decreasing in value.

That pushes up the price tag, for instance, of the Lincoln Center Festival, this summer shipping in a lineup that includes the National Theater of Scotland update of “The Bacchae,” with Alan Cumming, plus stagings from Dublin’s Gate Theater of Beckett’s “Eh Joe” with Liam Neeson and “First Love” with Ralph Fiennes.

But first, the good news.

A weaker dollar encourages international tourism in the U.S., with foreign travelers lured by the new buying power their stronger currencies now afford. And increased New York tourism means more traffic on Broadway.

That’s especially true these days, as Rialto shows increasingly take their brands global and international visitors account for a growing percentage of sales. A $110 top ticket price can feel like pennies if you’re used to paying pounds sterling or euros.

For commercial producers, the dollar’s weakness means it costs considerably more to hop the Pond with fare that appeals to Broadway’s Anglophile auds. A critical and commercial hit like the National Theater production of “The History Boys,” which swept the Tonys in 2006 during its Gotham run, becomes more of a risk.

“Yes, we’re affected by the dollar,” says Bob Boyett, producer of this season’s U.K. transfers “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “The 39 Steps” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”

The per diem paid to imported actors is becoming an increasing sticking point as the dollar drops. “It’s definitely a transaction that takes a lot more time and negotiation now,” Boyett says.

Past transfers could exploit cost-saving measures like having costumes or scenery built abroad for lower prices. Now, with the dollar worth less, those savings are largely eliminated.

The currency imbalance also means Americans hoping to invest in London legit have to scramble for more dollars to keep up with capitalizations determined in pounds — although legiters note that, due to a variety of economic factors, producing costs are generally lower in the U.K. than the U.S.

For the nonprofit presenters whose main goal is to bring international legit fare to a largely local aud, the dollar’s slippage proves a major hindrance.

“Brooklyn Academy of Music is a global performing and cinema arts center,” says BAM exec producer Joseph V. Melillo. “A weak dollar eats right into our operating budget.”

BAM specializes in bringing live perfs from overseas, including recent Gotham stints for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “King Lear” starring Ian McKellan and the Chichester Fest “Macbeth” that starred Patrick Stewart and went on to a Broadway run this spring. Programming also includes the annual Next Wave Fest, which this fall will present short runs of nearly 20 shows from around the world.

Nigel Reddin, the director of the Lincoln Center Fest who also is the general director of the well-known international arts event Spoleto Festival USA, estimates that the budget for the just-concluded 2008 edition of Spoleto was inflated by $80,000 due to the dollar-vs.-euro discrepancy.

“The festival will probably be in the red as a result of that, for the first time in 13 years,” Reddin says.

“We pay international artists their fees, we transport them by air, we bring them to New York City and give them a per diem,” Melillo chimes in. “If you’re doing that in pounds sterling, you feel the impact. For us, it means more fund-raising. It means higher ticket prices.”

Newer, smaller orgs can have an even tougher time.

“It’s not a happy situation for Under the Radar or for smaller presenters,” says Mark Russell, the former a.d. of small-scale international presenter P.S. 122 and current topper of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar fest of new legit works. “We’re having to do fewer pieces and cut our seasons down. It comes around to the fact that often, international troupes are subsidizing a tour of the U.S. themselves.”

At St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a current production of “Macbeth” from Polish troupe TR Warszawa has seen costs spiral to around $700,000, rising by about $200,000.

“What’s hurting the most is the devaluation of the dollar,” says St. Ann’s a.d., Susan Feldman. “You’ll make a deal and then the dollar drops. It adds tens of thousands of dollars to the budget.” (“Macbeth” is co-funded by the Polish Cultural Institute.)

Whether to pay relocating artists in their own currency or in dollars therefore becomes an issue. “It’s good for our gang when they go overseas, because they get paid in euros,” notes Russell. “But when I end up paying them in dollars, they don’t like it. It makes it harder to keep them interested.”

More and more productions that want to come to the U.S. have to go back to their own governments for further funding, such as St. Ann’s Irish import “The Walworth Farce.”

Still, Gotham orgs have the prestige of the New York arts scene working in their favor.

“Breaking into this market is of interest,” Russell says. “Artists aren’t going to take a reduced fee to go to Piscataway.”

Reddin adds that for an ambitious import, such as Lincoln Center Fest’s upcoming off-site staging of opera “Die Soldaten” at the Park Avenue Armory with 40 performers and an orchestra of 110, they can tap international corporations. “For ‘Die Soldaten,’ we were able to raise money in euros, which helped offset the expenses we had incurred in euros,” he says.

For now, producers who habitually present global work are making do with boosted fund-raising and scaled-back expectations. But those legiters worry that a long-term slump for the dollar could begin to shift the arts landscape that is one of the city’s main attractions.

“It’ll erode our position as the cultural capital of the world,” says Melillo. “You can’t have that edge if you only have Americans running around.”

(Sam Thielman in New York contributed to this report.)

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