Spotlight: Studio Arena's rebirth

kc kratt

Not long after the debt-laden Studio Arena closed its doors mid-season in 2008, Shea’s president Anthony Conte approached his board of directors and asked if there weren’t some way they could prevent the once venerable institution from becoming a parking lot. The board was willing, but that was just the beginning.

The wheels of bankruptcy and resolution turn slowly, but, more than that, Conte and the Shea’s board needed a viable plan. “It’s one thing to acquire a building, but it’s a whole different thing to do something with it,” Conte contends. “Our board would not commit unless they had some idea of what the plan was. We put our heads together, had a series of meetings with local and regional theater companies, educational institutions, and not-for-profits, and did nine to ten months of research and conjecture to figure out how to run this.”

At the crux of the conundrum was Shea’s expertise in management, not producing, as well as a priority to strengthen the theater district. The resulting model, which was officially implemented when Shea’s took ownership of 710 Main Street (see below on the status of this name) on May 8, 2012, maintains the building as a non-profit theater with its own board, but one that is Shea’s-managed and operated as a presenting space for collaborative productions with both out-of-town and local companies (though Conte says he’s open to any reasonable proposal, including dance recitals, workshops, concerts, or administration space leasing).

“Most of the theaters we talked to were very much in favor,” says Conte. “There was a question of ‘are you going to do what Studio did and try to steal all the rights so we can’t do [current] plays?’ “A valid question, as recent notable local productions—Kavinoky’s Other Desert Cities, Road Less Traveled’s Superior Donuts, New Phoenix’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play among them—were fresh-from-Broadway shows that likely wouldn’t have been possible in the Studio days. “They don’t have to worry about that,” Conte maintains, “because we’re not in the production business, and we don’t buy rights. But there is no shortage of product. The phone is ringing off the hook.”

Some of those opportunities are Shea’s-sponsored touring rentals, as was the case with John Lithgow and Seth Rudetsky’s early-season appearances at 710. Others will be the aforementioned collaborations, opportunities for local companies to take a show considered to be a good draw and, for the same dollar investment, harness much greater earning potential. “We’re going to take a piece for running the building,” Conte says, “but it’s not substantial, and the bulk of it goes back to the theater companies. That was what seemed to resonate with many theater folks.”

Though three companies are in talks to present at 710 Main in the 2013/14 season, it was Road Less Traveled Productions artistic director Scott Behrend who took the bull by the horns and arranged to present a play this season. Behrend—who directed To Kill A Mockingbird, Studio’s final production—will direct Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (see below), which opens February 1. As both guinea pig and pioneer, Behrend is well aware that he’s being watched, but he’s keeping his expectations realistic.

“I’m under no delusions that we’re going to sell out every show the first time there,” he says. “None of us are being unrealistic about what it’s going to take to get people interested or educated about what’s happening there. But having this opportunity first is great, to get our brand and what we do in front of people who have never seen our work before is something I’m always interested in. It’s exciting.”

In addition to the increased exposure and earning potential, shows in 710 also benefit from the Shea’s marketing arm, which just may help fill some of those seats. “I know that I’m looking at the paper and seeing where Scott’s production is getting listed through Shea’s marketing,” says Randall Kramer, MusicalFare artistic/executive director, president of the board of Art Service Initiative, cospokesperson for Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, and the man behind MF24H, the first event staged at the four-years-empty 710. “The hope is that if you’re partnering with Shea’s, you’re opening yourself to tens of thousands more potential theatergoers. I don’t think that place is going to get filled, but how do you measure the success in this? Is it the bottom line, is your stature in the community rising, are you becoming apparent to more people? There’s value in all of that.”

Behrend sees it as win-win, something that he’d love to do again if this initial experiment proves successful, but he’s aware that some people are concerned about dilution in the theater community.

It’s true that many theaters reported a boost following the closing of Studio Arena, as habitual subscribers sought another theater commitment. And the fear among potential 710 detractors isn’t so much that those subscribers will jump ship—which technically isn’t possible, as 710 will not offer subscriptions—but that 710, as Kavinoky artistic director David Lamb says, “will become a Shea’s roadhouse for legit plays, a pity and a detriment to local producers.”

While Lamb refers to dilution in terms of available titles and reduced box office, American Repertory Theatre of Western New York artistic director Matthew LaChiusa is concerned about dilution of product if there is too much emphasis on ticket sales. “This theater community has taken tremendous strides in rising above the pedestrian productions seen here the past,” he says. “But having a 600-seat theater means bringing in more mainstream works and relying on ‘star power’ to sell tickets. I’m afraid this might set back what more progressive companies have done to change the public’s mind about unfamiliar works or unproven talent.

“It will be interesting to see the overall demographics of who attends these shows at 710, if they are followers of Shea’s, nontheater folks attracted by a name, or part of that small percentage who are regular theatergoers,” LaChiusa continues. “If it’s a composition of the former two, then it’s the return of the pedestrian Studio Arena. I have no issue with local theater companies producing work there, with hopes that the work is indeed good. All theaters won’t be able to benefit from that, but that’s healthy competition that may force other companies to put on compelling work. My problem would be if they started putting on commercially acceptable work in order to compete.”

Commercial or not, Lamb favors a move toward the reestablishment of 710 as a “legitimate, fully professional LORT [League of Resident Theaters, regional] theater. That space deserves a full production and not a cut-rate effort—just my two cents.”

Lamb’s vision isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility, according to Conte, who also notes that he hopes to maintain that high quality by bringing in some productions that were premiered at regional theaters, as well as touring shows of non-musicals plays. “I want to satisfy the desire for that level of work on stage,” he says.  

 “Shea’s books musicals, but there are plays that tour, often with some pretty substantial actors,” Kramer points out. “We’ve never had that in Buffalo. I’ve never been one to believe that we’re all in competition, that if you go to my theater, you’re not going to be interested in going anywhere else. Research has shown that audiences tend to be loyal, but there are those who go to multiple theaters and audience that hasn’t been developed yet, so I see more theatrical activity as a good thing.”

In the meantime, Behrend maintains that he’s not looking at this opportunity as a “precursor to becoming a regional theater,” and Conte says that “for [it to have happened now], one of the local theater companies would have had to be willing and have had the financial wherewithal to become a regional theater company and, in four years, nobody came forward. If at some point, a company is ready to take that step, we’re perfectly willing to talk to them and work out the arrangements. For now, watch closely; this is a new model, one nobody else has tried. Hopefully, it works.”            

Circle Mirror Transformation is 710’s first local project
The first full production at the theater-formerly-known-as-Studio Arena is Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, winner of the Obie Award for Best New American Play, and a show that Road Less Traveled director Scott Behrend hopes will lure theatergoers to 710 Main Street.

Starring Robert Rutland, Morgan Chard, Kelsey Mogensen, and RLTP ensemble members Lisa Vitrano and Dave Hayes, “it’s the story of five people taking an adult acting class,” Behrend says. “Watching adults play theater games is pretty funny and through the course of these theater games and taking this class, they all learn much more about each other and themselves than any of them would have thought. It’s an interesting look at theater as ritual and how we expose or hide ourselves from other people.” Behrend asks theater aficionados to take particular note of the unique way Baker uses silence and pauses to create dramatic effect and humor.

Behrend is banking on that humor, as well as the play’s accessibility and endearing characters, to make this foray into 710 a success. “It’s not a technically heavy show with complex effects, but I didn’t want to jump feet first into a situation like that because that building has been out of circulation for four years, and there are hidden challenges just to get it up and running,” he says. “This is five actors and a great show with nice heart to it, and an audience. We can have a great night of communal theater, and I liked that idea a lot.”  

It’s 710 Main—for now
You can’t call it Studio Arena, and “the old Studio Arena” lacks appeal, so for now, it’s been 710 Main. While address names do have a certain charm and make Mapquesting easy, as a moniker, 710 Main isn’t permanent. Shea’s president Anthony Conte and the Shea’s board recently finished a proposal for naming rights, and expect that a naming agreement will be in place for the beginning of next season.

“There are eight to ten individuals and corporations who are very interested in being included,” Conte shares. “A long-term agreement is critical because you don’t want to be changing the name of the theater every few years. We want a long-term name that will last, and ensure the longevity of the theater by ensuring a flow of funds that will be there no matter what.”


Donna Hoke’s play, Seeds, runs March 1–24 at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

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