by Ronald Sklar
The New York small-venue theater scene is — as it has always been — vibrant with new and even established talent – both on and off the stage. However, small venue – or as it is sometimes called, off-off Broadway – is an artistic endeavor that faces many challenges and not many solutions. Since Shakespeare’s day, it’s the same olde story: the drive and the talent are there, for sure; the money is not.
Small venue is not exactly an idealistic dream world – it is immersed in cold, hard reality. The lack of funds as well as the time crunch suffered by producers, directors and actors have kept many a fabulous production from making their mark on a generally indifferent world. In addition, the burdens faced by small venues for the usually short duration of their shows are often overwhelming.
Enter United Stages. This enterprising New-York-based company seeks to relieve small-venue producers of their general business load so that they can be free to create, perform and deliver. This includes producing playbills, cross-promoting events, even publishing plays – at a comfortably reasonable cost.
Founded by playwright Jonathan Reuning and director Ian Marshall, United Stages is growing a healthy list of exciting new theater companies as their regular clients. With certain business responsibilities relieved by United Stages, the world of small-venue seems to be rejuvenating – which is a source of pride for the company and an integral part of its mission statement.
Here, Reuning and Marshall discuss their goals, challenges and the current state of New York small venue theater:
What is the purpose of United Stages?
Ian: It’s really summed up in our name. There is so much performance going on in New York City, beyond Broadway, beyond opera, beyond $120 tickets, that for most New Yorkers, this is what theater is really about: it’s edgy, it’s new. Our motto is “see more shows.” We want to get more people there. We want to encourage production at this level and make it a destination point for tourism.
Jonathan: New York is obviously the theatre capital of the world. A small venue having a playbill brings that small venue to life. It’s all about making the less visible visible.
What distinguishes small venue in New York?
Jonathan: This is different from Broadway or even off-Broadway. This is a form of intimacy. This is what radio used to be. This is not just a poor man’s Broadway, but something that is unique to New York. If there is one thing we want to do, it is to get people to be in an environment in which they can experience theater close up and really learn how special it is.
Ian: Imagine a script that is not commercial, without a chance that it’s going to go to Broadway or off-Broadway, where the expenses to watch such a production are astronomical. As good as this script is, it has a life somewhere, and it will not be in those high-profile destinations. It will be in a small venue performance.
Jonathan: The Flid Show is a great example. The depth of the show is unfathomable, and it’s mind-blowing. Yet only a few hundred people saw it.
How did the idea of United Stages originally occur to you?
Jonathan: It was like an evolution. We asked ourselves, what do we have to do to make people remember our show? These shows are usually gone in two weeks. You can’t get a grant for this kind of thing. There is nothing dependable about it. However, we’ll always be able to do this if there is a need. From the kid who just got off the bus to the professional who has been acting for fifty years, all are seen in these small venues. There is a wide variety of talent here.
How did your backgrounds prepare you for this venture?
Ian: I guess I always knew I wanted to be an actor. I came to New York and trained. Then I realized that acting was not really my ultimate destination. I’m a teacher. I teach movement and stage combat at a number of schools. And I direct. And each time, after the performance was over, there was a feeling of emptiness. So the idea of publishing the scripts and having a professional program that was very real helped to ease the blow that we are not allowed to continue these performances perpetually.
Jonathan: I went to NYU and I felt for sure I wanted to be an actor. Then, the second I graduated I realized that I hated going on auditions and I hated being “on.” I took a great playwriting class in acting school and all the lights turned on in my head. I was in television when I was young and I was doing “actorly” things, and so I thought it was to be my destiny. Yet getting my first play produced was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was just really hard – as it should be. After my first play was produced, I was invited to join a company and become a manager and I was introduced to all these business aspects that challenged me not just as a writer but as a producer.
Ian: If I had known then what I know now, I probably would have minored in business. And that’s what many actors who go to acting school are lacking – a business sense. They are their own product. They must be able to market themselves. I tell all my students, “At this level, you are going to perform in work you create for yourself.” You really have to create your own work. One of the directions that United Stages is definitely headed is to help stimulate production of this level of performance. This is so that it’s not such a chore for people to produce something that they feel passionate about.
Jonathan: It stimulates work going on in New York, and hence, globally, because New York is the world capital of theater. Doing this is like planting seeds.
What are the challenges you see in establishing a business such as this one?
Ian: What are we up against? There are a lot of production companies out there and there are a lot more that get started every single day. Nobody has any money at this level. And that’s okay. But a lot of people want to do things cheaper. So the challenge is to bring a lot more people on board to advance the movement.
Jonathan: That is our biggest challenge – how to make this really cheap so that everyone can have it, and yet somehow make a living from it. The other challenge is helping people to rise to a level of professionalism that says, “I’m worth seeing.” To get maybe ten more people in the seats and to open up a dialogue with each other. I would love to create a pub society like England has where there is actually a place to go after a show and you can talk with someone about it. A community. There are a lot of empty pubs, and a neighborhood theater company can create a relationship with the pubs that happens naturally. There are many pubs that are within walking distance of maybe six to ten shows every night.
Do production companies have to be schooled in the ways of marketing?
Ian: I think there is a certain mentality among many production companies that small means “under the radar.” It doesn’t have to be. And it doesn’t take a huge amount of work. What it does take is a community that helps support their visibility. When this happens, small venue becomes a destination. It then rises above and becomes something else, which is amazing, vibrant performance in New York City. This is not to be confused with Community Theater in other places outside of New York, which is a group of talented amateurs performing for recreation. Not to put that down at all, because I grew up in a community theater as well. This is different. These are professionals. Maybe they haven’t broken through to Broadway yet, but some of them have. Between gigs, Broadway actors perform here.
Jonathan: We have a column in our playbill called Seeing Stars. What we’re saying here is that there are stars here right now in this venue that we think aren’t just aspiring – they’re already there! That’s what spotlighting can do for an actor. We’re saying, “You’re not going to see an actor better than this guy.”
Compared to Broadway, are artists in small venues more passionate?
Ian: I can’t say that people on Broadway are not passionate. However, whenever you have millions of dollars at stake, then everybody’s going to have their say, and that requires a lot of compromise. Things that perhaps were once edgy or controversial or awe-inspiring may have been dulled down for a lower common denominator. You don’t have that problem in small venue. There aren’t millions of dollars at stake.
Jonathan: There is not as much self-censorship because there is not as much at stake. Small venue isn’t as self-conscious.
What needs to change?
Ian: Space availability. Jonathan and I have both produced theater before, and by far the largest expense at this level is space. Space is tremendously expensive. We’re also losing lots of really great theater spaces all over the city. The leases are being bought out by companies that want to turn them into condos or whatever because they make more money from it. From a financial point of view, theaters don’t bring in a lot of income, so people who own the buildings are pretty much seeing small venues as a charity. However, the owners have to charge a lot of money to justify the cost. That cost gets passed on to small venue producers.
Jonathan: It’s survival of the fittest right now. Some companies are being very clever now by pairing up with other companies and making alliances and doing shows at off hours or staggered hours. That’s why every pub should have a theater space. Places that are dead at night — like in the financial district – should open up their doors. This is a perfect place for small venue. So it would work both commercially and communally.
What keeps artists in this world going?
Jonathan: On a personal level, you make a choice about what your life is going to be like as an artist. You decide, well, maybe I’m not going to be doing commercials. Instead, maybe I’m going to lead this life that a lot of people choose to live, that is a full, complete artistically wonderful life. Making a living from this is not the primary thing. Love what you’re doing. Have a passion for what you’re doing.
For more information about United Stages services, or to connect with the vibrant world of small-venue theater in New York City, log onto www.unitedstages.com.
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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 18, 2005.