Plexes flex muscle

Legit venues change the way they do biz

NEW YORK — Some of Gotham’s theater multiplexes are changing the way they do business. Among New York’s most intriguing legit experiments, the four multi-venue complexes — Theater Row, 59E59, Dodger Stages and 37 Arts — form two distinct pairs, each with changes on the horizon destined to impact the conventional wisdom for upcoming Off Broadway seasons.

One emerging rule of thumb? Small and steady wins the race. A constant stream of productions is flowing through Theater Row and 59E59, both of which are almost fully booked through 2007. These are the “little complexes”: Their houses range from 75 to 199 seats, making them attractive venues for scores of itinerant Off Broadway shows.

But while both plexes host one-off visitors, their bread and butter comes from recurring festivals and resident companies.

Permanent occupancy is especially driving the Theater Row overhaul, spearheaded by general manager Erika Feldman. Not only is she maintaining relations with the Summer Play Festival and theaters including the New Group (which just signed a three-year renewal), but Feldman is also bringing five new companies onboard for next season: the Keen Company, Epic Theater Center, the Edge Theater Company, Divercity and the Actor’s Company Theater.

For the first time, permanent tenants will fill the majority of the complex’s schedule.

“I want this to be an incubation place for small nonprofit theaters who are homeless,” Feldman says. She’s done much to woo them. Whereas vanity projects — which used to dominate Theater Row, when many of its houses sat dark — might rent the 99-seat Clurman space for $5,000 and 5% of the gross, resident troupes will get billed $3,000 with no profit-sharing.

Theater Row will obviously benefit from the stability these companies provide, and the companies themselves see perks in their new digs. Keen, for example, has been surviving since 2000 in a 99-seat house near Avenue B. When it joins the Row, while the venue will be exactly the same size, “the trick is that the location gives the perception of importance,” says artistic director Carl Forsmanof the 42nd Street address.

Zak Berkman, whose Epic Theater Center visited the Row last year with “Einstein’s Gift,” notes the benefit of performing alongside other companies. He says that during “Einstein’s” first weeks, box office staff encouraged patrons to buy tickets when other plays were sold out.

That’s certainly a nice image: small theaters supporting one another in a high-profile building. But for complexes not designed for fledglings, the picture is less rosy.

Dodger Stages and 37 Arts — the “big complexes,” where theaters range between 199 and 499 seats — are far more acquainted with dark nights. Though Dodger has had success with “Drumstruck” and “Altar Boyz” in medium-sized venues, managing director Beverly MacKeen admits that the 499-seat houses — where high costs and low returns felled “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” and “A Mother, a Daughter and a Gun” — “are increasingly difficult to program.” And even her brightest tenants, she says, “are doing well, but not as well as they should be doing.”

37 Arts’ final space just opened in the fall, and Alan Schuster, one if its managing members, says that since both his building and Dodger bowed within the last 18 months, “there are a lot of houses to fill. It’s going to take a while for the market to digest the changes.”

Extra space isn’t the only problem. The big complexes are designed to feature long-running hits, and those have been slow in coming. “It’s been a challenge finding good tenants,” Schuster concedes. He wants his own long-running hits on the order of “Jewtopia” or “Slava’s Snow Show,” but he won’t fill the interim with programming he doesn’t like.

So what to do until a new “Jewtopia” emerges? The watchword seems to be “diversify.” Sherry Glaser’s “Family Secrets” will open at 37 Arts on March 8, but the venue has also been renting its spaces for rehearsals of Disney’s incoming Broadway show “Tarzan” and the national tour of “Rent.”

MacKeen wants her complex to branch out even further, and she hopes an imminent shakeup will let that happen. Dodger Theatricals will cede control of Dodger Stages to Stage Entertainment on March 15, which will likely result in everything from a new name to a new slate of programming. Predicting the inclusion of dance, concerts and even gallery showings, MacKeen says, “We’re in the early stages of making this a broad performing-arts destination.”

Which means many Off Broadway shows are likely destined for smaller venues if they want to be seen.