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Diminishing Number of Stages Has Off-Broadway Companies Scrambling For Space

Broadway may be bathed in all the limelight, but New York would not be one of the world's top theatre cities without the plethora of Off- and Off-Off Broadway spaces that liberally dot the city and the theatre companies creating new works to fill them.

But while Broadway's houses are protected by landmark status, the mix and match nature of small theatre spaces puts some of the city's most inventive attractions in buildings not originally intended for performances and has companies renting from landlords who don't necessarily have greasepaint in their veins.

Last month's closure of the Union Square Theatre, as part of the redevelopment of historic Tammany Hall, is another example of how smaller theatre companies are feeling squeezed out of the city that built its artistic reputation on live performances, but they're fighting back with a newfound surge of collaborations and co-productions.

"We can do things together that we could not do separately," Jim Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop tells the Wall Street Journal. "It's about how do we realize this artist's vision if we do not have resources on our own?"

Michael Walkup, producing artistic director of Page 73, which develops new works by early career playwrights, said he has seen a rise in co-productions within the community: "The more I am on the lookout for them, the more I am noticing them."

His company has joined forces with Ensemble Studio Theater to produce Leah Nanako Winkler's play KENTUCKY with a 17-member cast.

"Half of the budget for KENTUCKY is still bigger than what a regular budget would be," says Walkup. "It's just operationally huge."

But it can worth the risk if a play finds a substantial life after their initial production. Recently, Ensemble Studio Theatre has upped its prestige with its original production of HAND TO GOD, which moved to Broadway, was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award, and is now prepping for a West End opening.

"We want to get the plays out there. We don't look at ourselves as the end stop," said William Carden, artistic director of Ensemble Studio, which also launched PHOTOGRAPH 51 before its acclaimed London run starring Nicole Kidman.

Theatre rental traditionally takes the largest chunk out of a budget. A 199-seat theater would go for $10,000 to $12,000 a week, according to Peter Breger, chairman of the Off-Broadway Alliance.

Competition for spaces is fierce, especially among plays that have done well in tiny theatres and could continue to sell tickets at a medium-size venue, but may not be right for Broadway.

"There are a lot of plays that shouldn't be in a 1,500 seat house," says Scott Alan Evans, artistic executive director of the nonprofit group the Actors Company Theatre, which is co-producing George Bernard Shaw's WIDOWERS' HOUSES with the Gingold Theatrical Group in March.

Some nonprofits have secured their own spaces, such as New York Theatre Workshop, which has been ensconced on East Fourth Street since the early 1990s, or become resident companies at venues, such as Primary Stages, newly in residency at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

But most have to scramble to rent a theater, or hope to attract a producer who wants to put the show in a commercial venue, such as the Minetta Lane, the Westside or one of the five venues within New World Stages, now owned by the Shubert Organization.

"There is a need for off-Broadway theaters," says Breger.

Thus, potential productions are put on hold while appropriate space is sought.

"Great plays can slide off the radar," said producer Scott Morfee of the Barrow Street Theatre, a commercial venue in the West Village. He says he's continually telling producers he has no space available.

"A lot of times they are terrific shows," he says. "I think they are banging their head saying, 'There is nowhere to go.'"

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From This Author Michael Dale