Unconventional shows combine tourism, theater

With tourists accounting for the majority of Broadway’s robust annual box office, a handful of enterprising producers have decided to combine visitors’ two fave things to do in Gotham: see the sights and a show.

“The Ride,” which launches Sept. 16 in New York, seats audience members in custom-built buses with three rows of stadium seating that face a wall of glass and about 40 flatscreens of varying sizes.

As the bus rolls its mobile, 49-seat auditorium around a 75-minute Manhattan landmark loop that begins and ends in Times Square, two improv-trained emcees will point out the theater of New York’s sidewalk life — enhanced by performances from “Ride” cast members placed at strategic outdoor locations along the route.

“For the tourist who comes into town, this is sort of a melding of a Broadway show and a Gray Line bus tour,” says Jonathan P. Danforth, prexy of “The Ride.”

If all goes according to plan, there will eventually be eight custom buses on the streets of Manhattan shuttling auds past the familiar midtown locations that serve as the backdrop for the show, with the Gotham edition of “The Ride” serving as the basis for satellite incarnations in 15 U.S. cities and another 15 locations around the world.

Another site-specific hybrid performance offering — “Accomplice” — has already proven successful enough to expand internationally. Although very different from “The Ride” in style and scale, both productions target the nexus of tourism and theater that has proven so profitable for Broadway.

For the 2008-09 season, visitors accounted for 63% of the 12.15 million tickets sold, with international auds logging a notable uptick over past years.

Given the obvious commercial ambitions of “The Ride,” it might surprise legiters that the project has indie-theater cred: It was created by Michael Counts, the Brooklyn impresario who founded an attention-getting experimental theater company, tagged GAle GAtes in Dumbo, before the outer-borough nabe became cool.

Producer Robyn Goodman, whose legit credits include “Avenue Q” and “Altar Boyz,” also is a member of the “Ride” team.

“My two passions in the theater were site-specific pieces and journey pieces,” says Counts, whose work at GAle GAtes often had auds following a show from place to place in the company’s massive warehouse space. “?’The Ride’ is really the ultimate expression of that, and New York is the ultimate set.”

John Bobey (“Late Night With David Letterman”) writes (with Kim Gamble and Jack Helmuth) and directs the loosely structured show, aiming to provide a narrative framework as well as enough flexibility to allow for improvisation and seasonal additions.

The endeavor kicks off with three buses, to be joined by a fourth a few weeks later and, eventually, four more after that.

With each bus costing $1.3 million to build, the startup pricetag already lands in the same ballpark as a decent-sized Broadway musical — and that’s before adding in the paychecks of the cast and crew of 60-70 who will eventually keep the “Ride” rolling through its 32 performances per day.

Ducats range from $59 to $65 apiece.

While the people behind “Ride” are betting big, they can take comfort in the fact that “Accomplice,” which also combines elements of theater and tourism, has been running in Gotham for five years.

There’s also a Hollywood edition of “Accomplice” co-produced by Neil Patrick Harris, with a London edition soon to be co-presented by the Menier Chocolate Factory.

For $65 each, “Accomplice” sends groups of 10 people out on foot for a three-hour scavenger hunt through a neighborhood, encountering performers who reveal elements of the show’s storyline and point auds toward their next destination.

A downtown Gotham edition launched in 2005, with a version set in the Village opening in 2007. Harris got involved in producing the Hollywood version, which opened in 2009, after he saw the show in New York and became a fan.

According to Tom Salamon, who co-created “Accomplice” with his sister, Betsy Sufott, the first New York show started off attracting mainly locals, before word slowly spread and tourists gradually began to make up a higher percentage the audience.

The Gotham shows are now split evenly between locals and visitors, he says, while in Los Angeles, the ratio of Angelenos to out-of-towners is more like 3:1.

Each edition has a different plot, a fact that might encourage auds to see the show in more than one city.

“From the beginning, we had the idea this was something we could expand,” Salamon says.

Neither “Accomplice” nor “The Ride” has to contend with paying rent to a Broadway landlord, and the pay scale for performers and stage crew isn’t monitored by unions. The non-pro performers are mostly improv artists and don’t belong to a union.

Additional revenue can come from corporations that buy out showtimes for their events, while creators of “The Ride” hope to benefit from the patent on the bus, which other companies may find uses for.

Still, there’s overhead to contend with: There are ongoing prop costs for “Accomplice,” for instance, plus the bill for the food and drink that auds get with the price of admission at each show.

Besides, there’s always the weather to consider. And traffic: “The Ride,” for instance, plans to shut down between 4 and 7 p.m. in deference to rush hour.

(Perfs will initially run only at night, before eventually expanding to the entire day.)

Still, one question remains: How do you categorize these hybrid offerings, anyway?

“We call it a show,” Salamon says of “Accomplice.” “More than anything, it’s theatrical.”

For “The Ride,” Danforth prefers the description “experience.” Counts calls it a lot of things.

“It’s theater, it’s entertainment and it’s a theme park,” he says.

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