Soho Rep’s risks pay off

Edgy fare boosts off Broadway venue

Soho Rep earned plenty of attention last fall with the late Sarah Kane’s horrifying (and widely praised) “Blasted,” which helped cement a rep that’s been growing for some time. In the two short seasons since upgrading to a full Off Broadway contract, the 34-year-old playhouse has claimed an increasingly vital spot on the crowded Gotham legit map.

With a full menu of new plays, including Dan LeFranc’s “Sixty Miles to Silver Lake” in January and Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s upcoming “Rambo Solo” (bowing March 21), the venue has suddenly become one to watch for Manhattan theatergoers starved for new work. And while it has been able to increase artists’ salaries, it still has invested in the offbeat and controversial.

The buzzed-about “Blasted” had long been a recommended read among experimental theater buffs, but American companies had mostly steered clear of Kane’s divisive work. The 1995 London production, centering on a rendezvous between former lovers in an apocalyptic war zone, caused storms of protest and support — events that don’t tend to attract larger institutional theaters with elderly subscriber bases. And cannibalism, rape, mutilation and sodomy don’t tend to sit well with the pre-theater cocktails.

Those theaters that shied away from the graphic work might have missed out, however. “We sold out pretty much every performance,” says Soho Rep artistic director Sara Benson of the play’s extended run.

That success came with a financial risk as well as an artistic one: The production of “Blasted” ended up costing about $110,000 for the initial engagement. That’s a tremendous expense for a company that runs on a budget of about $500,000 a year.

But the gamble paid off, thanks in large part to good word of mouth and a supportive board that includes actor Tim Blake Nelson and finance-savvy alumni from larger theaters like Roundabout and Signature.

Benson, who directed “Blasted,” has been a.d. of the company since 2006, when she moved up from its Writers & Directors program and took the helm after Daniel Aukin departed. She’s presided over Soho Rep’s expansion, and is trying to help it through the recession, which she says leads to some interesting compromises for a theater just starting to navigate larger contracts.

“Dan LeFranc was one of the writers who was in our lab last year,” Benson recalls. But rather than take on the large-scale, large-cast play that resulted from that experience, “In the Labyrinth,” Benson teamed with fellow Gotham company Page 73 Prods. and its co-exec director Asher Richelli, on a smaller play by LeFranc. They ended up bringing the scribe’s father-son drama “Sixty Miles” to Soho Rep.

“That was something that, since we were doing it in the same season as ‘Blasted,’ we wouldn’t have been able to take on alone,” Benson says. When the theater extended “Blasted,” it had to put another $100,000 into the production, pushing this year’s budget up around $675,000.

Benson sees the co-production track becoming increasingly popular in the immediate, hard-scrabble future. “I’ve had so many calls from people about partnering with smaller theaters and larger theaters,” she says. “I think it’s something we’re going to see a lot more of.”

Financially speaking, Benson is keeping things in a lower gear for Soho Rep’s season closer, the one-man show “Rambo Solo.” But the piece itself is still highly unusual. It stars Zachary Oberzan, a member of experimental troupe Nature Theater of Oklahoma, as himself, and features the thesp reenacting the entirety of “First Blood” within the confines of his 250 square-foot studio apartment on a budget of $100. Presumably Soho Rep will spend more than that to re-create his apartment in the space, though possibly not much more.

The conventional donor-friendly growth pattern at a small, successful company is to work your way up to a $1 million budget, then make the jump to $3 million, then start making some real money with subscribers. But here, as everywhere else, Soho Rep remains unconventional.

“I think larger theaters are naturally more risk-averse — they have more obligations than we do,” Benson says. “And this really is the world’s worst time to start a capital campaign.” Instead, she envisions adding more shows, paying the artists more and launching an education program.

So far, the plan appeals to auds as well as artists: Soho Rep boasts one of the youngest audience bases in Gotham, and they’re happy with what they’re seeing. “We’ve seen a radical change in our audience,” Benson notes. “A lot of people come to shows who’ve never been here, and they keep coming back.”

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