Terry Takes Italy!

Below is a speech delivered by Terry Schreiber at the Florens International Week on Cultural Heritage and Landscape. The conference took place in Florence in November, 2010. nnFirst of all, I would like to express my gratitude for being included in this panel of the International Forum.nnI have been fortunate to have been in Florence twice before, the last time with my then 16 year old daughter in 2005. I will never forget taking her to the Academy Gallery and knowing where Michelangelo’s David was located, I let her walk in front of me. As she turned the corner hallway and spied the masterpiece she raised her arms in the air and cried out: ‘Daddy, it’s so big!!’nnIt’s just one of many fond memories of this beautiful and historic city.nnI would like to begin my presentation by quoting one of my mentors, Harold Clurman. As a side note, Harold was a Broadway director, critic, and founding father of the Group Theatre from 1930 until its financial demise in 1940. His theatre introduced a very different style of American acting and playwriting that was to have a lasting effect on the American theatre.nnHarold once said to me: “When I go to a foreign country, I don’t have to read their newspapers, or listen to their radio, or watch their television. I go to the theatre and it tells me exactly what is going on in that country.”nnHe also said: “The theatre has been in trouble for 2000 years, why should the last 10 be any different?”nnHarold was right with both quotes.nnIn the 50 years I’ve been in the business in New York, every decade I’ve heard the cry go up – “The theatre is dying.” And theatres do die, and with their demise so does the immediate community around that theatre.nnThat is why I’ve titled my presentation as “Theatre – The World’s Oldest Living Invalid.” But it’s an invalid that keeps surviving because of the grittiness of the people who participate and strive to keep the invalid alive.nnNew York is the theatre capital of the US. People think that NY is driven by culture and life-style. It’s driven by real-estate.nnWe as theatre artists are like urban pioneers willing to take risks, moving into gritty neighborhoods and using that grittiness to feed our artistic sense. We move into these neighborhoods because it’s all we can afford. Then, others are attracted and the grittiness gets re-gentrified, real estate sky-rockets and organizations have to move. I will site my own experience of 43 years later as an example.nnThe challenge that is facing us, not just in New York, but throughout the country, is how do we find a way to make artists a permanent part of the community. So that when neighborhoods improve, we are not priced out of the area with exorbitant rents.nnBecause of the recent economic crisis there is more limited funding. Federal and state governments have significantly decreased funding to the arts. There’s never enough money to make the invalid healthy.nnIn an attempt to rectify this situation the New York State Legislature has proposed tax incentives to be given to landlords to help non-profit organizations stay in the neighborhood. Rocco Landsman, the director of the National Endowment for the Arts, is in talks with foundations to help find ways to help theatres remain in their neighborhoods.nnI would like to give you a picture of the three different kinds of producing venues in the New York area – Broadway, or the commercial theatre, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway. First, in the midtown area of Manhattan, there are currently 40 Broadway theatres, including Lincoln Center further uptown on 65th street. Seldom are they all lit up at the same time. All Broadway theatres seat 500 or more people, some as high as 1200 to 1500. So far the 2009/2010 season (it’s all year around) has sold 1.02 billion tickets. Box office gross is 9.8 billion, and is has supported 84,400 jobs. Tourist spending alone for Broadway shows grossed 5.2 billion of that 9.8 billion figure I mentioned. 6 million tickets were sold to tourists.nnIt is the big musical blockbusters that make those figures sound so impressive. Non-musical plays struggle for survival and are not an easy draw, especially with tourists. More and more these plays need major stars to sell tickets.nnWhy the ever hovering invalid on Broadway? Most major musicals take a year or more to recoup their original investment, some never do. For instance, a new musical, ‘Spider Man’ has a 60 million dollar investment. That’s unusually high but you’re always talking at least 10 million and higher for a major musical. Non-musical plays seldom run for an entire season and the chances of recouping present long odds.nnPlays suffering bad reviews are lucky to run out the month. Frequently a quarter of those 40 Broadway theatres I mentioned are dark. For any investor it’s a crap shoot and you better have the money to invest for the fun of it, the adventure, the opening night glitz and glamour. As a well known playwright, Robert Anderson, once said: “You can’t make a living in the theatre but you can sure as hell make a killing.”nnBroadway is a tough market place, but when the majority of these theatres are lit up with productions, the entire surrounding area of hotels, restaurants, shops, stores, even taxi-cab companies are enriched.nnI have   observed Broadway’s effect on the community for fifty years and have a particularly vivid recall of the 70s and the 80s when 42nd Street, the main street of the Broadway/Times Square area, was filled with prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. Small off-Broadway theatres in the area had been turned into porno film houses and 8th Avenue was also filled with porn book stores, strip joints, and other tawdry venues.nnIn the mid-80s, Broadway producers and concerned political figures banded together under the title of the Times Square Development Group to clean up the Times Square area; refurbishing movie grind houses, and especially cleaning up the traffic on the streets and the porn business. By the end of the early 90s, Broadway lit up again in all it’s neon splendor and became family safe once more. Now it’s filled with several museums, movie theatres, some fast food restaurants and street artists at their stalls doing portraiture and usually selling hand crafted souvenirs. The small off-Broadway theatres were converted back from porn movie theatres to off-Broadway theatres and off-off Broadway theatres, which I will describe shortly. During the regentrification many new merchants and restaurants opened up stretching all the way to 12th Avenue. Still, the Times Square Development Group did not necessarily incorporate the arts into the community. It is more a ‘destination’(?).nnWhen I first came to NYC in 1960 there was a thriving counter theatre movement to Broadway, simply known as off-Broadway. Each decade I’ve been here more and more of these theatres have been forced to close because they only sat 199 people and could not possibly meet production costs, or months of being dark.nnThe saving grace and ‘life for the invalid’ has been the advent of subscription theatres, also known as club theatres that have sprung up to replace the closed Off-Broadway theatres. Producing venues in the area of off-Broadway have consolidated theatres, making them into one plant, or enlarged spaces in buildings, sometimes accommodating two theatres, incorporating a main stage and a second stage. They will seat anywhere from 100 to 499.nnThese club theatres usually produce a five play season, or more if they have two theatres in their building. These are not-for-profit organizations, and rely heavily on outside funding, private donors, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment in Washington. Member subscriptions for cut-rate tickets and memberships are broken down in donor categories. Wages are minimal and budgets are tight. Each play runs a couple of months and selection allows many new writers to have their work produced with quality actors and directors. Sometimes one of the productions is picked up and moved to Broadway.nnIt’s been interesting for me to notice that probably 90 of the off-Broadway theatres I went to in the 60s through the late 70s are gone. Fortunately new organizations have found a way to enlarge other spaces, expand and stay alive and kicking.nnIn comparison to Broadway, ticket prices purchased at the Box-Office are under $100.00 for those off-Broadway theatres and considerably less by subscription for a season. As an example, in 1963 the cost for a Broadway show was $7.50, which would be equal to $54 in today’s terms, not the current $125 to $500. Again, it’s mainly due to the high cost of real-estate. Discount tickets for Broadway are available through special groups and the Theatre Development Fund also offers reduced prices, but certainly not for hit productions.nnOff-Broadway generally draws a more savvy theatre-going audience. Many subscribers renew year after year. However, without grants and private funding these not-for-profit theatres would never stay alive. The ones that do are well managed and run the year around. It is very rare anymore to find an off-Broadway theatre dependent on booking a production that is able to stay alive. Again, economics raises it’s ugly head! A lot of these theatres were very charming spaces.nnIn the mid-60s, a very exciting movement began, known as off-off Broadway, the equivalent of the independent scene in film. I have been in this venue since 1970 and have written about my experience in a soon to be published book I’ve titled “Producing on a Broken Shoelace.”nnAt one point in the early 70s there was about 250 such theatres functioning in the five borough area. Some of these early pioneers have led their theatres in becoming the club theatres I discussed. Many others went under, leaving, at last count, about 60 off-off Broadway theatres still functioning in any given season.nnThese theatres, like mine, seat under 100 people and have, since the beginning, sprung up in churches, coffee-houses, basements, lofts, office buildings, in any place that ambitious young people can hammer some nails and boards together and put on a performance. In the summer empty parking lots and public parks are turned into spaces to perform Shakespeare. The NY Shakespeare Festival, originated by Joseph Papp and inaugurated in 1962 in Central Park has remained a free public presentation of two Shakespeare plays every summer. Sitting out under the stars in Central Park for these productions has become so popular that you now have to stand on line the night before until the box-office opens at 10 AM the next morning.nnTicket prices vary off-off Broadway any where from $15-$30. Play productions range from wildly experimental to revivals and new plays. There is also a wide-ranging audience, from young people to elderly, even some senior citizen centers, that come back to the same little theatre over and over.nnAs Broadway and off-Broadway is pretty much a closed market place for young and new talent, off-off offers anyone with a little money, talent, grit, and tenacity to set up shop in whatever space they can find. It affords new talent a chance to be seen by industry people – agents, casting directors, directors, and other people in the arts. Most of the time everyone is working for free, or a nominal fee, but it gives all concerned a chance to follow their dream and do the kind of work they want to do.nnI pointed out how hotels, restaurants, and other businesses in the mid-Manhattan/Broadway area profit from theatres. It is also interesting to note how the off-Broadway and off-off theatres have served the areas where they are located. From my own personal experiences of running an acting school and theatre for 43 years, I want to sight two examples of how both my studio and other organizations like mine have served the community.nnIn the mid-80s I moved my studio to the lower east side of Manhattan, a combination of lower income apartment rentals and the Bowery – the skid row, derelict and seedy, section of Manhattan. The area had been Hippie Haven in the 70s. Across the street from my studio was a famous off-off theatre – Café La Mama, and a bogus restaurant that was a front for running numbers. By the time we left in 1996 there were nine other theatres that had opened in the area, new restaurants, and skid row and a run-down 2nd Ave was cleaned up by a city re-gentrification. The area gradually became one of the hot-spots in the city for night-life. It still is a posh and chic place to be. Rents of course, became exorbitant and we had to leave.nnMoving to our present location which we’ve now occupied for fourteen years, the area known as Chelsea has also undergone a re-gentrification. Again, there have been other off-off theatres moving in around us and what was a rather dreary and somber area at night has come alive with four new restaurants on our block, two hotels and another 8 in the nearby area.nnIn both areas, the lower East Side and the Chelsea area, we were not the sole reason for the re-gentrification, but we certainly contributed a great deal by bringing audiences from all over New York and the surrounding areas for our productions. In both areas, real-estate has sky-rocketed and as we head into the last year of our lease, we may once more be vagabonds, looking for another home in an affordable area.nnOver my 43 years in the business, we’ve almost gone under a couple of times. Many of my peers have, but some always hang in there and find a way. Of course, there are always newcomers starting up with their own dreams, keeping the invalid alive.nnMany of a producer in this market has not only lost their own shirt, but those of their investors. But this invalid that has been pronounced dead so many times keeps coming back.nnThere is an audience that wants live entertainment and an escape from their daily lives. I think that live theatre, more than films or television, gives people that escape. There is that magical moment of contact between a live actor and you, the audience, that is a moment forever frozen in time, that will never come again. It is magical, the actor has reached beyond the proscenium and touched you deeply and personally.nnThere is a wonderful speech in Carson McCuller’s play, A Member of the Wedding, when Frankie, the 13 year old female protagonist of the play, says:nn“I wonder if you have ever thought about this? Here we are – right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. And it will never come again. Never in this world. When it is gone, it is gone. No power on earth could bring it back again.”nnFor me, whatever kind of play I produce, direct, or see – and I think it’s the same for an audience – we are transported socially, politically, and sometimes spiritually to the world that the musical, drama, comedy, or experimental production presents. It informs us of the past or the present and the kind of a world we are living in, the values, universality and identification the production has to our own lives.nnSince the Greeks, the theatre has given so many, so much.nnHowever, from century to century we have fought to keep ‘the invalid’ alive. I think we will always find the people that are drawn to the struggle and the risk.nnI’m glad I did, and I don’t regret a single moment.

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