Nonprofit commit to sustain, expand new works programs
Pick one of Gotham’s major nonprofit theaters and you’ll likely find a second-stage program devoted to presenting smaller-scale productions by emerging artists. None of these make any money.
Just ask Todd Haimes, a.d. of the Roundabout Theater, where productions that are part of Roundabout Underground cost about $300,000 to mount and bring in only about $75,000 — thanks to a small house of 62 seats and a ticket price capped at $20.
And yet, nonprofits remain committed to such programs, with some in the midst of expanding.
Roundabout Underground, now in its fourth year, is for the first time presenting two shows in a single season, while Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3, in its third season, soon will have a newly built permanent home on the Lincoln Center campus.
Second Stage Uptown has been going for eight years, and its most recent offering, “Bachelorette,” became one of the well-reviewed hits of the summer. This week, Public Lab alum “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” opens on Broadway.
The reasons a theater company creates and sticks with second-stage programs, despite the fiscal hurdles, are many. A lot of them hinge on nurturing the next generation of writers and other legit creatives.
But it’s not all prompted by arts-minded altruism.
“LCT3 is a costly addition to our programming, and there is nothing remotely moneymaking about it,” says LCT a.d. Andre Bishop. “But this is not our scheme to be noble and save the nation’s theater. It’s a scheme to invest in the future of Lincoln Center Theater.”
Both Bishop and LCT3 director Paige Evans see the program — whose latest offering, Nick Jones’ “The Coward,” begins perfs Nov. 8 — as not only opening a window of opportunity for unheralded creatives to work at a major company such as LCT, but also as a way of establishing an ongoing relationship with the artists.
That’s been the case at Second Stage, where, for instance, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa made his debut in the Uptown series before the theater produced his play “Good Boys and True” on its mainstage. Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) has had two plays produced uptown ahead of his latest, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” scoring a mainstage stint for early next year.
At the Roundabout, a berth in the Underground includes a commission for the scribe’s next play. According to Haimes, Stephen Karam, who launched the series with “Speech and Debate,” is poised to show up on the company’s larger Off Broadway stage with “Sons of the Prophet” after it bows at Boston’s Huntington Theater this spring. “Tigers Be Still” occupies the smaller stage.
It’s not just stage creatives whose careers are nourished, says Second Stage a.d. Carole Rothman, noting that the people tapped to run these programs — Uptown’s Christopher Burney, LCT3’s Evans, the Public Lab’s Mandy Hackett — will likely move on at some point to assume top posts on the nonprofit scene.
“We’re also talking about the next generation of people who will lead theater in this city,” Rothman says.
The nonprofits’ new-artist showcases aim to cultivate audiences through low-price tickets, with Underground, LCT3 and the Public Lab capping ducats at $20 or less. The aim, theoretically, is to inspire such theatergoers eventually to become future subscribers or members.
As yet, there’s no research to prove the strategy actually works. The folks at LCT3 are notably upfront about the challenges of attracting audiences to new plays by artists you’ve likely never heard of, and of establishing a recognizable brand for LCT3 itself.
“The biggest challenge is new audiences,” says LCT3’s Evans. “We’re succeeding on a show-by-show basis, but we haven’t yet built an ongoing audience.”
The new, permanent home on the Lincoln Center campus — targeted to open sometime next season — seems likely to help with that, Evans adds. Recent shows for LCT3 include musical “On the Levee” and the well-reviewed “Stunning.”
Another challenge, according to Hackett, associate a.d. of the Public, is the perception from some in the industry that second-stage programs rep a kind of easy, low-stakes response to critics who argue new work has trouble finding a place at large-scale theaters these days.
“I think there’s a lot of backlash in the field, like the second stage is just where we stick the young writers,” she says. “We’re working really hard not to ghettoize our young writers, so we’re trying to get our Lab seasons to feel like a microcosm of our main season.”
Because of that, Lab productions don’t only showcase emerging playwrights such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“Neighbors”) and Mona Mansour (on tap for a slot later this season with “Urge for Going”), both members of the Public’s Emerging Writers Group. They’re programmed alongside new work from established scribes such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Richard Nelson, who kicks off the Lab season Oct. 26 with “That Hopey Changey Thing.”
The Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic Stage 2 shares a similar penchant for putting works by new writers (such as Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness”) with the likes of Ethan Coen (“Almost an Evening”). “We wanted a space where we could do stuff that’s possibly riskier and sometimes more in-process,” says Atlantic a.d. Neil Pepe.
However a second-stage program is structured, execs at these nonprofits note that the excitement of the young artists involved can often be contagious. As their expanding ranks makes clear, the programs have grown to be considered integral parts of the orgs.
“It’s not our little brother,” says Burney of Second Stage’s relationship to its Uptown program. “In a way, it’s our right arm.”