But nonprofit vows not to rely on commercial income

It’s only logical these days for legiters to wonder whether the Public Theater is angling for a permanent Broadway outpost.

After all, this season the Off Broadway nonprofit has become one of the more active commercial producers on Broadway, serving as a general producing partner on three Main Stem outings — “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “The Merchant of Venice” and upcoming Chris Rock starrer “The Motherfucker With the Hat.” And the spate of activity follows on the heels of the commercial transfer of the Public’s revival of “Hair,” which had a profitable 15-month Broadway run and recently went out on a national tour.

It all looks like a prelude to a more permanent Main Stem home, along the lines of the Broadway houses run by fellow nonprofits the Roundabout, Manhattan Theater Club and Lincoln Center Theater.

But that’s not the plan, according to Public leadership.

“Weirdly enough, it’s not by design,” Public a.d. Oskar Eustis says of the busy Broadway season. “We’ll never aim productions to Broadway. We obviously are in a learning curve about the Broadway experience, but I think we’ll continue to view it as an available venue only when it makes sense to go there.”

The Public isn’t banking on a constant commercial revenue stream, but it’ll take it when it comes — the Rialto incarnation of “Hair,” for instance, netted the nonprofit a sum in the high six figures, according to Public exec director Andrew Hamingson. The org then funnels that coin toward supporting its non-moneymaking activities, such as its Emerging Writers Group and a new Shakespeare platform called the Mobile Unit, an initiative to bring free Bard productions to underserved auds in multiple boroughs.

The commercial producing arm of the Public is technically a for-profit subsidiary wholly owned by the larger nonprofit. (MTC produces the current Broadway transfer of “Time Stands Still” under a similar arrangement.) Per Hamingson, the arrangement with commercial partners is generally to split a production’s capitalization costs, with the Public raising money from investors just like any other producer.

For commercial producers, there’s an appeal to projects that, in many cases, have been developed in the less commercially risky world of the nonprofit, and can move to a commercial production with buzz already solidly established.

The $4.5 million “Bloody Bloody” opened this fall on Broadway following a popular, well-reviewed run at the Public in the spring. And the $3.2 million, Al Pacino-toplined “Merchant,” one of the rare plays pulling in more than $1 million per week on the Main Stem, originated in a well-received Shakespeare in the Park production over the summer.

Both those shows, as well as “Hair,” saw the Public team with commercial producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel.

“There’s an imprimatur when one has the good fortune to work with any resident theater like the Public,” says Richards, who also produced transfers of nonprofit-originated fare including “Spring Awakening” and “August: Osage County.” “Certainly the nonprofit theaters around this country have been responsible for some of the most exciting works in the theater.”

“Hat” reps a more unusual case, in that the Public already had planned on a production of the new Stephen Adly Guirgis play that would have been staged in the org’s downtown, Off Broadway home. It was only recently that arrangements were made for a Broadway staging produced with Scott Rudin.

“It became clear to us that the show could sustain a Broadway-size production and a Broadway-size audience,” Eustis said. “And then the question becomes: Are we going to allow these artists to get the biggest, broadest stage for their work, or will we leave that to someone else?”

Eustis adds that the benefits of the Broadway activity for the Public include the boost to fundraising efforts that the higher profile provides, as well as the statement to Public artists that the org won’t shy away from taking a production as far as it can go, in terms of the commercial arena. The general partner role allows the Public not only a share of creative power but grants the org a say in the business decision-making as well.

The for-profit outings also bring in revenue to an org that relies on an unusually high ratio of contributed income vs. earned income (i.e. box office). A full 70% of the Public’s $21 million annual operating budget is contributed, as opposed to the 50/50 split that’s often the target for nonprofit theaters.

A lot of reliance on contributions comes from Shakespeare in the Park, the Public theater program that has been producing free, large-scale legit offerings at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater since 1962. With most tickets free (aside from a number of tickets available in pairs for a $350 donation), Shakespeare in the Park is largely funded by corporate sponsors including Bank of America.

Although the free tickets are intended to open the productions up to all comers, many of the more popular shows — like “Merchant,” “Twelfth Night” starring Anne Hathaway or Mike Nichols-helmed “The Seagull” toplined by Meryl Streep — have turned into ultra-exclusive events, available only to those with deep pockets or the time to spend all day waiting in line.

That’s part of what prompted the Public’s new Mobile Unit, a pilot program for what the org hopes will become an expanding initiative to produce an itinerant production that plays venues including the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in Staten Island and a women’s shelter in the Bronx.

Projects like that require extensive funding, and the Public’s commercial revenue has helped the theater consistently expand its activities over the past couple of years, despite the economic downturn, its leaders say.

Still, there are risks and drawbacks to the increased commercial role. For one, all that additional work is shouldered by the org’s staff of 92. And now the Public not only has donors and subscribers to keep happy — it also has commercial backers hoping for returns.

“If we’re raising funds and a show doesn’t recoup, we’ve got disappointed investors who might decide not to invest with us again,” Hamingson says. “It’s the same risks a commercial producer has.”

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