Theaters think inside the box

Nonprofit venues work in small spaces

“Sometimes, you have to let them fail,” says Neil Pepe. The artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company is talking about playwrights.

“It can be short-sighted to judge the worth of a play based on financial success, so there’s a huge plus to producing plays in an intimate theater.”

That kind of cushion, allowing for experimentation and potential failure, is hardly the domain of Broadway, where new plays, particularly by Americans, have long been an endangered species. Of 35 Broadway openings this year, only four were new American plays, and two of those have already posted closing dates. That means major companies that want to retain an adventurous hand in the fostering of new work without financial over-exposure increasingly are relying on secondary spaces.

Two major New York nonprofits with a history of producing on Broadway as well as off — Atlantic, Manhattan Theater Club — are operating such boutique spaces. And the Roundabout is preparing to launch another.

With the fledgling “Roundabout Underground” initiative, which kicks off in the fall, commercial success is the last thing on Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes’ mind.

“The reality is that there’s no way at this theater, in this space, at 100% of capacity, that the play can make money,” confesses Haimes of the new space. “It can’t.”

Since the venue can’t rely on its own receipts to fund its productions, Roundabout is hoping to absorb the cost of the apparently Quixotic enterprise by setting aside funds within its regular operating budget, earmarking the project for a range of backers that help keep the institution afloat. That structure provides a cushion unavailable to most small, single-stage companies.

The play to which Haimes refers is “Speech and Debate,” a new work by young writer Stephen Karam, whose only prior New York production was D.C. transfer “Columbinus,” which he co-wrote. “Speech and Debate” will bow in October, christening Roundabout’s new 65-seat black box under the Laura Pels.

“We did a reading about five months ago, and afterward we all thought, ‘Well, we love the play, but we probably can’t put it in the Laura Pels with a million-dollar production.’ ” Haimes and longtime producing collaborator Robyn Goodman decided to use the new space to nurture fresh talent.

Haimes hopes to bring fresh voices into the American theater via Roundabout Underground’s productions, giving new writers a chance to grow by seeing their work produced before a paying New York audience.

“We haven’t literally written it into the mission statement, but I really would like them to be Americans,” says Haimes. “I think British writers have plenty of opportunities, here and abroad.”

Broadway vet Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”) will direct the play, which Haimes hopes will mark the start of a program that vets a new piece “a couple of times a year. It all depends financially.”

The Atlantic has been carrying out a similar initiative, recently announcing its second season for Stage II, a 99-seat space on the lower level of the company’s Port Authority building in Chelsea.

“There’s a lot of work out there that needs a home,” says Pepe. “And it doesn’t need a developmental-reading-workshop home; it needs a full production home.”

The Atlantic has been attracting talent from outside the theater world: Last year, the new space opened with “Six Feet Under” scribe Kate Robin’s “Anon.” This year’s lineup includes the Off Broadway debut of screenwriter Ethan Coen with a program of three one-acts.

“Not all great plays should go to Broadway,” Pepe adds. “If the environment becomes too concentrated on commercial success, the new plays are going to be less and less interesting.”

The grandfather of these small spaces is MTC’s City Center Stage II, where work by lower-profile writers like Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa can be found alongside imports (such as Brit writer David Greig’s “The American Pilot”) and more established names like Charles Busch.

“The most important thing, I think, is that writers be allowed to grow and gestate,” offers MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow. “There are different expectations that come with a larger audience on Broadway; you have a bit more latitude in a small, Off Broadway theater.”

That latitude has given MTC the scope to transfer a number of plays successfully from its smaller stages to the main stem, among them “Proof,” “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and “Doubt.”

So, with three major nonprofits drawing on work of a similar pedigree, is there any sense of competition?

The more, the merrier, says Haimes: “There’s so much talent out there, and the venues are so small. When you know you’re going to sell every ticket and you still won’t make money, it’s kind of liberating.”

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