In years past, to see Hollywood heavyweights on stage such as Daniel Craig or Daniel Radcliffe you would have to buy a ticket to a Broadway show. But in 2016 both actors could be found working in New York on smaller Off-Broadway stages. Radcliffe headlined the New York premiere of James Graham’s Privacy at the Public Theater this summer while Craig takes the stage alongside David Oyelowo in New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Othello this November.
The draw of Off-Broadway is unmistakable. “There’s a wellspring of artists and talent here that you just can’t find anywhere else,” says NYTW artistic director James C Nicola.
Located in Manhattan on 79 East 4th Street between Second Avenue and Bowery in the East Village, the theatre, founded in 1979, is a long-standing member of the Off-Broadway community. It offers robust experimentation in form, diverse voices, and some of the most daring new theatre artists working their craft in an intimate space in New York.
Off-Broadway venues are generally distinguished from Broadway ones based on size: the latter have more than 500 seats and fall within a certain geographic corridor in Manhattan. Off-Broadway theatres have 100-499 seats; Off-Off-Broadway involves 99 seats or fewer.
The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York represents New York City’s non-profit theatre community. Its 360 member companies include some of the largest theatres in New York on Broadway as well as some of the smallest Off-Off-Broadway.
Being part of a vast community of non-profit theatre companies has its benefits. “Unlike a major regional theatre responsible for the theatrical cultural life of an entire community, NYTW can focus on areas that other theatres aren’t addressing,” notes Jeremy Blocker, the theatre’s managing director.
“Traditionally, the Off-Broadway movement has been about playwriting, the playwright, and new plays,” adds Nicola. For instance, New York’s Signature Theatre embodies that tradition by employing three different residency schemes. These allow playwrights at varying phases of their careers to present work over the course of several years on three state-of-the-art stages. Meanwhile, Off-Broadway theatre Ars Nova offers a single small stage but programmes bold and genre-bending work that goes beyond plays and musicals and stretches to cabaret and comedy.
1. Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent began its life at New York Theatre Workshop in 1996 – Larson died on the evening of the dress rehearsal. The show transferred to Broadway and the West End, winning the Tony for best musical and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It ran on Broadway for 12 years.
2. In 2015 artistic director James C Nicola received the Miss Lilly Award for supporting women in theatre. Associate artistic director Linda Chapman was awarded the Mizz Lilly Award for contributions to gender parity.
3. UK directors who have worked at NYTW include Max Stafford-Clark, Sam Mendes and Declan Donnellan. John Tiffany won a Tony award for Once, which started out at NYTW in 2011. James Macdonald directed Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information in 2014 and Ramin Gray staged David Greig’s The Events in 2015.
4. NYTW’s CheapTix Rush programme offers $25 (£20.50) same-day tickets for under-25s, over-65s, Lower East Side residents and working artists (subject to availability). In addition, all tickets to the first two previews of each show are $25.
5. Elsewhere Off-Broadway, the longest-running musical, The Fantasticks, ran at the Sullivan Street Playhouse from 1960 to 2002 (17,162 performances). Catherine Russell has played Margaret Thorne Brent in Perfect Crime (currently at the Snapple Theater Center) since 1987 – the longest-running performance by an actor in the same role; she has missed only four in more than 12,000 performances. The longest-running Off-Broadway play, Line, at the 13th Street Repertory Company, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017.
“Because Signature Theatre is focused on playwrights and Ars Nova is working with emerging artists, NYTW is able to take a chance on something that’s a little bit crazier and little bit more outside the box,” says Blocker.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the David Bowie/Enda Walsh musical Lazarus, directed by Ivo van Hove (see West End review, p15) started out in NYTW’s 199-seat Off-Broadway space. In fact, Van Hove has been making work there since 1997.
“Since its foundation, New York Theatre Workshop has been focused on the writer and the director with equal commitment and that’s one of the things that makes us unique,” says Nicola, who has led the theatre since 1988. Rather than a programming philosophy built around ‘product’, Nicola says, “It’s a theatre about relationships with individual artists. It’s about process.”
This means NYTW makes room not only for visionary directors such as Van Hove and Peter Brook, and provocative playwrights such as Caryl Churchill and Ayad Akhtar, but also theatre collectives such as Elevator Repair Service.
“Partly because of a dual commitment to a playwright and a director, the form of theatre is something we’re always interested in exploring,” says Nicola. “We also love to see people challenging the accepted formal agreements about what theatre is.”
Even the musicals staged at NYTW have pushed at the boundaries of tradition. Nicola asks: “What is an American musical in the 21st century? What’s the shape of it?” The answer, he finds, is in the “imaginations of the artists”.
Recent musicals premiering at NYTW have bucked the traditional form. These include the Tony award-winning Once with its wistful romance, movement by Steven Hoggett and onstage bar. What’s It All About, inspired by Burt Bacharach, seated the audience on sofas, and Anais Mitchell’s epic mythological folk opera Hadestown was adapted from her concept album.
For a theatre known for innovation, but not for doing Shakespeare, Othello sounds like a departure. But the production is part of NYTW’s long-standing commitment to directors and their work. Othello came about through the theatre’s desire to work with Tony award-winning director Sam Gold.
In 2007, NYTW gave Gold his first directing job in New York, since when he has busily built a career for himself at a number of other theatres (including in London with Annie Baker’s The Flick at the Dorfman, National Theatre). Nicola wanted to find a project that Gold might not do anywhere else. According to Nicola, Gold wanted to work on a larger-scale, historical play and suggested Othello.
This dedication to artists is not only demonstrated in the selection of projects. NYTW has recently been willing to tear down the theatre’s walls – quite literally – to accommodate various productions. It has drastically reconfigured its space to see each artist’s vision achieved. For Hadestown, the proscenium theatre became a wooden Greek amphitheatre with country kitchen-style chairs instead of theatre seats, echoing the American folk-music score. In Van Hove’s Scenes from a Marriage, the audience had to get up and move to visit three segmented stages within the space to see the whole story.
Members of Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York: 360
ART/New York members by annual budget:
• Less than $100,000 – 53%
• $100,000-$500,000 – 23%
• $500,000-$1 million – 10%
• $1 million-$5 million – 11%
• More than $5 million – 3%
Weeks worked by actors on the Off-Broadway Equity contract 2014/15: 12, 634
“We’re affecting how theatremakers make theatre, because they come here and they see incredible innovation,” says Blocker. “Jan Versweyveld has inspired as many artists in New York with his stage design as Van Hove has with his direction.”
This balance between offering a flexible space for creativity and support is central to the appeal of working at NYTW, which is housed in a former rubbish lorry repair shop. The size of the space is deceptive. With the proscenium layout, the space is approximately two-thirds stage and a third audience. “You basically have a Broadway-size stage to work with but in a very intimate setting,” explains Blocker. “A lot of artists are excited about the size and the nature of that room and the intimate connection you can establish with an audience while still doing a really big show.”
When asked why artists return to the workshop again and again, Nicola answers sheepishly, “Because we keep asking them.” But Blocker sings the praises of the modest Nicola in the equation. “The support that artists receive here is very much tailored to what they need. Jim and the artistic team are very hands-off when the project doesn’t need meddling and very supportive and hands-on when artists are seeking help and assistance.”
Artistic director: James C Nicola
Managing director: Jeremy Blocker
Landmark productions: Rent (1996), Shopping and Fucking (1998), Once (2011), Love and Information (2014), Scenes from a Marriage (2014), Lazarus (2015)
Employees: fewer than 30 full-time staff
Budget (2015/16): $6 million (£4.9 million)
Audiences (2014/15): 35,295 (767 CheapTix)
Performances (2014/15): 203
Income (2014): $4.8 million (£3.9 million)
Expenditure (2014): $4.5 million (£3.67 million)
Funding: Sources include the Shubert Foundation, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, Disney Theatrical Productions, Dramatists Play Service, Givenik LLC, Lincoln Center Theater and the Tony Randall Theatrical Foundation
Further details: nytw.org