Theater in WNY / Artistic directors discuss the state of theater in Buffalo
Photo of Quinn, O’Connell, Harris, and O’Donnell by Stephen Gabris; O’Neill by kc kratt
When a city is changing as fast as Buffalo, it’s hard to keep up with the development and growth of each sector within it. We can, however, for this issue, take the pulse of the theater industry and community, which has been doing its own morphing and developing as the Queen City thrives. Four theaters have relocated this season, three have expanded their programming into two theaters, all have seen diversity in audience, and we saw what the coming of Hamilton did to Shea’s subscriptions. We checked with the artistic directors of eight professional theaters here to discuss what’s up, what’s next, and what they wish was around the corner.
Buffalo Spree: What changes have you felt/seen in the Buffalo theater scene in the past five years?
Vincent O’Neill (Irish Classical Theatre Company): The rise of the younger companies like Second Generation.
Randy Kramer (MusicalFare): We’ve also seen companies building on their success and reinventing themselves. David Bondrow has improved the level of productions at the Lancaster Opera House. Road Less Traveled keeps building on its success.
Scott Behrend (Road Less Traveled Productions): Five years ago in 2013 is when 710 reopened, and that venue has gone through a lot of experimentation with its own identity. The current leadership is a key catalyst for the five-way collaboration of The Three Musketeers.
Saul Elkin (Jewish Repertory Theatre): Theaters and cultural organizations are crossing previously uncrossed lines. In the two years ahead, JRT will collaborate with both Kavinoky and the Buffalo Philharmonic. Buffalo is truly a theater town. Forty years ago, there was Studio Arena and a handful of university programs.
O’Neill: We now have a critical mass of first-rate theatrical education, and it all feeds into the local scene, which means less tendency for people to graduate and dash off to New York or Chicago.
Behrend: The record-breaking Shea’s subscription series and how many people are going to see theater in Buffalo. Probably the most ever is my guess. Our single ticket sales have certainly increased.
Paulette Harris (Paul Robeson Theatre): More people are placing theater at the top of their entertainment choices.
Loraine O’Donnell (Kavinoky): Choices are great, but that means more competition as well. Theaters need to pay attention to what their audiences respond to and then serve them. The theater-going public are pickier, and they have so many choices that they are looking for the best value for their dollar.
O’Neill: We’re seeing more commercially oriented companies than before, certainly more companies doing musicals.
Mary Kate O’Connell (O’Connell and Company): Theater has always provided an escape from the “real world” and these days, we need that escape even more. More and more, our audience wants to laugh.
O’Neill: I would love to see more companies take on challenging work like Torn Space and RLTP; they don’t go for the comfortably commercial.
Harris: In this political climate, theaters are exploring more issues, and theater patrons embrace more difficult themes when they are presented in a production versus during a conversation.
O’Neill: The other trend is audiences becoming younger in the sense that when I sit at a theater, I’m not the youngest person in the house. It’s a slow trend, but a definite one.
Elkin: JRT is also attracting a larger and larger non-Jewish audience, and as I look across the hill at Shakespeare in Delaware Park, I am seeing a greater demographic mix. The more varied and interesting the menu, the more audiences are responding.
To what do you attribute these changes?
O’Donnell: The loss of Studio Arena. Studio did some amazing work and really put Buffalo on the national map. The trouble was and still is that the public perception is that Studio did the best work and deserved most of the attention and publicity. Ten years later, the other theaters are [still] trying to make themselves the theater that deserves the accolades, funding, and respect, when, in fact, they have always deserved all of that.
Behrend: It can’t hurt that there’s more people living and working in the city. Especially with my All For One partners, there’s been a lot of discussion of how we need to be a part of the conversation about this new Buffalo. [We’re creating] something that is going to be noticed by the public, hopefully bring new people, and push the entire sector forward.
O’Neill: This antiquated notion that we’re in competition is nonsensical.
Behrend: We’re gonna start compiling data—where are patrons from, who they are, what they want to see. That will hopefully have a huge effect not only on 710 but all of our theaters, and from there, we’ll see a trickledown effect. As a community, we’re still trying to figure out what’s next, and this is a first step.
O’Neill: Critical mass helps all of us, not just in terms of number of theaters but also the number of restaurants and people employed and living the downtown corridor.
Behrend: Most theaters in town are trying to reach out to new audiences, including younger people.
In the past decade, what changes have you had to make in order to adapt?
Meg Quinn (Theatre of Youth): We called our forty-fifth season our year of reflection, and new information has stimulated how we do things. It goes back to your audience and what they’re looking for and trying to step up. We want to give enough choice around what people know and feel comfortable with and, at the same time, plug in one or two a season that are artistically exciting—calculated risks.
O’Neill: If Hamilton is going on at Shea’s, we know there will be parking issues. We’re also not going to do a massive musical to compete with Hamilton, so we’ll do quintessentially classic Irish. If Kav opens The Producers, we wouldn’t do The Music Man in the same slot.
O’Connell: With more groups on the scene, we have to be more creative in getting and keeping our audience’s interest and dedication. Step up our game!
Kramer: We’re constantly reevaluating the best way to create and enhance MusicalFare’s [visibility] with current and new patrons. We’ve seen the so-called best marketing practices jump from print and mail houses to online and social media. Right now, it feels like the most effective marketing encapsulates all of these platforms. Ask me next year and my answer may change...
Harris: The cutthroat nature some theaters will go through to secure the “perfect casting” situation! Some theaters will entice artists from other theaters with obscene amounts of money or cast years in advance so they can have a specific person. Does it affect my theater? It does, because, in most cases, the other theaters are attempting to court some of our artists. I usually prepare for this by securing new artists and offering memorable “experiences” that are not bought!
That’s a perfect segue into talking about what efforts you all are making toward gender parity and EDI [equity, diversity, and inclusion] in your season programming.
O’Neill: At [Theatre Alliance of Buffalo] auditions, we’re seeing more actors of color, and the more successful Robeson and Ujima are, the more those actors come into the community and the more we become aware of potential casting. Raices, too, has been effective, like Rolando Gomez is playing Hamlet’s father, working with us for the first time. Initiatives need to come from performers as well.
Harris: I take EDI into consideration with all of my programming and it may sting at times to have to use theater as a platform [for that] conversation. The importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion is discussed regularly during our rehearsals because the world is just that diverse.
O’Connell: We are a woman-owned business and our whole mission supports EDI. Our Diva by Diva A Celebration of Women! and its many offshoots, offers opportunity to men and women of varying ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. We regularly enlist color and gender-blind casting for all productions. Our Suffragist DIVA celebrates the women who have and continue to advance and enhance the women’s movement. I write and pursue scripts that are diverse and inclusive. We make sure that casting notices are open to the public, and we train our staff to cater to senior and special needs audiences.
Kramer: Whenever possible, our casts represent people of [varied] ethnicities. It makes for a more inclusive gathering in the theater and a more interesting production. Additionally, in 2018-19, we have a number of shows—Pump Boys & Dinettes, Ragtime, and Fun Home—that feature female writers and/or composer/lyricists.
Behrend: We’re successful at maintaining diversity in our organization, ensemble, and work we do. I’m conscious of making sure we have female writers, diverse writers in terms of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. It’s on our radar all the time.
Quinn: It’s always been part of who we are that every child who comes here feels welcome and connected. Now, it’s even more deliberate to check with ourselves that our planning reflects our community. We’ve also started doing sensory friendly shows and sought out people to educate us about how to best serve a population of children with special needs. At every performance, a mom has come up to me and said, “thank you, because sometimes it’s so hard to go places.”
In Buffalo, what are the challenges of that commitment?
Behrend: Attention being paid to female playwrights is still a huge challenge, and female directors are a huge challenge, and that doesn’t even take into account playwrights or directors of color, which is a whole other level of challenge. It’s important that the top theaters set the trend.
O’Donnell: It has never been a matter of finding talent—we have an overload of that—but in the past, we have been comfortable using the same people over and over again. That is changing. This season, we have women directing three of five shows; that’s a first. And it’s not because we are trying to check any boxes; it’s because they are good for the projects.
O’Neill: It’s a smaller percentage of established plays [by women] so they tend to get produced less. It’s also a question of programming your mission. There’s an Irish playwright whose work is so visceral and in-your-face that it would antagonize the audience. I’m looking at seven full-time employees and 100 part-time and that’s a lot of mouths to feed; you can’t make arbitrary choices and do Bermuda Shorts on Roller Skates just because it’s different—not that I’m equating that to a production by a female playwright. If buyers are buying into a particular way of looking at the world, you deliver to that mission.
O’Donnell: We need to think about the future when those patrons are no longer here. It only makes sense to invite as many different people to the party as possible. Real, powerful theater is not just for one demographic.
Behrend: For certain, it’s one of the biggest challenges in programming the work we should be doing. For Disgraced, it took me three years to get the right people together, and we finally had to bring in a lead actor from out of town because I wanted somebody who was from the correct background. I’m not going to cast a white person in a Latinx role; I won’t do it. That makes the job tougher, but it’s about getting more opportunities to more people.
Quinn: It’s a challenge to find people and let them know they’re welcome, but that’s not to say you want to give yourself a laziness about it. It’s always been an awareness, but now I’m making it my business to not leave it up to chance. I’ve held out on roles until I found the person who should be doing it. I search harder and farther, and I’m going to build out my resources and connections so that it happens all the time. I’m also having conversations with Buffalo City Schools to find what are the plays that will connect with the city.
O’Neill: It’s easier to create parity in a classic than it is in a quintessentially Irish play. When we do Sive, it could be all white, but Hamlet will be a mix, and Three Musketeers is a diverse cast. It depends on product, vehicle, and how well it works.
Quinn: With more theaters and just the cycle of scheduling with people, it can be challenging to cast. And then for actors, sometimes people are overcommitted so scheduling becomes rocky.
Meg Quinn, Mary Kate O'Connell, Paulette Harris, Loraine O'Donnell
What is the best trend in Buffalo theater right now? Explain.
Harris: The film industry has tapped into local artists, and it provides opportunities to artists that may not ever had the opportunity for film at any level. More artists are experimenting with digital media, which expands into web series and indie film projects, and sometimes there is crossover with non-threatening collaborations amongst this generation.
Kramer: It’s still economically possible to put on a production for not a lot of money. This allows new actors, writers, and producers to enter the theater scene. The danger in this is that once these companies have done this, they need to develop resources to improve. If the effort stops there, the growth of the theater community also stops.
Behrend: Better infrastructure. There’s a better sense that if we want to keep talent in Buffalo and working here, we have to provide quality experiences and pay our theater artists in a way that is legit.
O’Neill: The extraordinary increase in artistic standards. Back in the day, there were three or four directors you’d want to use, and now I have a list of fifteen to twenty who are first rate. [Years ago], you’d have the five leads, but everybody else was undertrained; now there’s so many people who are fully trained. And we’re spoiled for lighting, set, and costume designers when, again, there were just a handful fifteen years ago.
Quinn: Diverse casting.
O’Donnell: More women in leadership roles!
O’Connell: Enthusiastic casts and crews regularly posting on social media about the productions they’re working on. The posts generate feedback and excitement.
The worst trend?
Harris: The insurgence of digital media and filming projects. These media have distorted the viewpoints of the novice who feels, because they were an “extra” in a film, they are capable to perform onstage or are above performing on stage.
Quinn: Trying to forecast challenges that are brewing; casting is one. And [fixing it] means building a broader network of actors, people who can come in from New York and there’s a way to house them, or a way for theaters to share cost of an actor, to package a job that makes it worthwhile for actors to relocate for a time. And paying actors a livable wage. So often, the basic nonprofit business model is set up for disaster. First cut is what you pay people, and that doesn’t sustain and strengthen a community.
Behrend: [Not doing] a better job with our websites, Internet presence, social media presence, and overall digital marketing. That’s the way of the future, and people need to put a lot more time and resources into that.
How do you feel about the current trend in theater reviewing, i.e., it falling largely to bloggers with fewer reviews by major outlets?
O’Neill: Bloggers and social media is not a substitute; it’s an add-on. If you look at a company like ours where majority of our audience is over fifty, they go to print media, not blogs and Facebook; they don’t use Twitter.
Behrend: I’m disconcerted about what’s happening with the Buffalo News, which just eliminated its full-time arts critic position. I’m surprised that we’re still seeing as many reviews, but I think the clock is ticking on that.
Harris: A reviewer’s opinion is their opinion; unfortunately, there is a population that relies solely on that.
Kramer: Informed theater criticism is important. It’s great to have social media platforms for people to share opinions—after all, the best marketing is still word of mouth.
Harris: If a show becomes the “it” show, people want to come see it based on that alone!
Kramer: But if I’m going to work at this full-time, it would seem appropriate to have the person critiquing my work have a similar investment in theater.
Harris: I’m not sure every reviewer is equipped with the experience and knowledge to provide an adequate review. Providing a play-by-play account about a show is not a review.
O’Donnell: I love that bloggers have tried to make up for the lack of coverage, but what are their credentials?
Quinn: People reading think [the reviewers] know a lot more than they do and that opinion really guides.
O’Donnell: I once heard a “critic” go on about how they didn’t understand how a musical theater performer could be so good in a straight play. This is a question that an audience member may wonder, but when someone giving their “professional” opinion doesn’t have the basic understanding that an actor is an actor with or without music, it’s terrifying to any theater company hoping for a well-thought educated review.
Quinn: It’s better for arts community when you have someone with an opinion you can glean something from.
O’Connell: Any time theaters can get publicity through reviews, blogs, posts, or whatever is good. Not being mentioned or included is what hurts us. The times they are a changing, and we have to adapt or be left behind.
O’Neill: The changeover is already happening. We use social media more and are conscious of reaching to a younger demographic in that way.
Behrend: It certainly can’t hurt to have more people talking and writing about your show, but I am concerned that when new theater patrons want information about shows and even reviews, what’s going to become the hub? The Buffalo News has always been the hub, and if we’re going to have smaller outlets, do we need to make a concerted effort to create that hub ourselves?
O’Neill: Thirty pro and semipro theater companies and not a single journalist assigned or even shared with art criticism. The television stations don’t really cover the arts. That’s a huge lack of respect. The cultural scene is a big strength of the renaissance; to not recognize its weight is a massive mistake. It’s almost as if theater doesn’t exist.
Quinn: I don’t know how it shakes out, this reflection of everybody giving their two cents about everything. Maybe people only want to know, was it fun? Reviews are not as defined and obvious as they used to be. There’s impact, but I don’t know how we navigate it.
10 seems to have had trouble finding its footing since Studio Arena closed.
Harris: It’s [having trouble] because it’s still trying to operate in the same way that caused it to close: union house.
Kramer: First off, Tony Conte and Shea’s saved 710, and we should all be very thankful for that.
O’Connell: Shea’s is on a good track with 710. Bringing in local theater companies to present larger productions and special performances keeps this familiar venue more local focused.
Kramer: While people could—and have—taken issue with some of the programming choices, it’s hard being a theater that hosts other theaters’ productions. The quality of the work can be uneven. Add to that the size of 710 and the associated costs that come with it, and it can be very challenging for local theater to produce a show there.
Harris: Smaller organizations don’t have the operating budget to have programming in that venue. It should have been given to all artists in Western New York as a venue open for public use. That would have been a great opportunity to add more diversity to the theater district. The underrepresentation of African-American presence in the theater district is disheartening to say the least.
O’Neill: 710 won’t be rebuilt in a day. I want to see it become Buffalo’s theater company. I enjoyed Studio Arena, but it really wasn’t Buffalo’s theater company and, for the most part, brought people from outside and ignored the wealth of local talent. It’s a huge difference with Michael Murphy, who is using local talent and local companies.
Quinn: Michael Murphy talks, he listens, he takes in information, and brings his wealth of knowledge and experience. He’s becoming familiar with the Buffalo audience and constructing a vision for that space.
Could it be a League of Resident Theaters again?
Behrend: To be a LORT, you have to be a self-producing company, and I think that 710, at least for a while, is going to be maintained as a larger community resource. It all comes down to dollars; the place would have to be doing a robust subscriber base and really selling a lot of single tickets. One of Michael’s thought processes is he wants to have 710 do the same kind of business that Shea’s does, maybe not in a commercial sense artistically speaking, but in terms of getting people though the door.
O’Neill: The potential is there, but people have to be patient. It would take structured steps for that to happen, but I think it will happen in time.
Has Buffalo’s renaissance diminished people’s fear of coming downtown? Have you gained numbers?
O’Connell: Our audience has found their way to the Shea’s Smith for our shows. Many people still prefer our Park School location, but we have found new audience and welcomed some of our regulars to Smith.
O’Donnell: There are still older patrons who are nervous, but you’ll never get them to change. Getting a younger audience base has really helped.
Elkin: Shakespeare in Delaware Park had the largest audiences this summer that we have ever had.
O’Neill: Main Street being pedestrianized made a huge difference, most buildings having a residential component, traffic patterns around Main and Ellicott, the amount of activity, music or theater or Sabres, have all made a difference.
O’Donnell: The busier and more alive downtown is, the better for all businesses.
O’Neill: We used to have this joke when we moved here that you could look down Main Street in January and it was like a tundra, you could shoot a moose. Now, you can’t throw a stone because you’d hit somebody.
Randy: We’ve had great success with some of our shows at 710; over 10,000 people came to see Ring of Fire and Avenue Q.
Harris: Our numbers started growing due, in part, to our season selections and some to earlier time offerings. People are being more adventurous.
Behrend: Downtown is as safe as it’s ever been, especially in the theater district. The amount of people walking around at any given time is incredible compared to what it was twenty years ago. People’s fears are outdated.
Complete the sentence: the Buffalo theater scene needs ___________.
Harris: More recognition for bringing in tourism dollars.
O’Donnell: It would be great if we could have some of those “Buffalo Billions” for marketing and advertising, or some City of Buffalo money. Maybe a general cultural arts scene campaign that advertises more than just Curtain Up!—which all the theaters created on their own, by the way.
O’Neill: I’ve been talking for years about having a three-week festival in the summer, and not just in theater, but the BPO, Burchfield, city exhibitions. It could have enormous appeal beyond the city or county; we need to come up with marketing that goes beyond Buffalo. The notion of a two- to three-week festival and marketed nationally, then it becomes a tradition. All those festivals started with Galway and now Edinborough is so large, it takes a week to read the program!
Quinn: More conversation based not on our own two cents, but what’s out there, and how it might apply to us. Is there a way to leverage a collective approach to the more organizational things that would allow more resources and time and energy for creating the work?
Harris: More diversity! We recently hosted The Blackness Project at PRT moderated by Mayor Byron Brown and the audience was fifty percent African American and fifty percent white American. The world is filled with so much tension caused by the current political climate, and the theme for resolving these issues or at least attempting to understand is more community discussion.
O’Neill: Getting the word out, having a theater festival, eventually having a LORT again, a genuine theater of record. We need more companies joining Theater Communications Group, because, if you’re not in it, you’re not aware of what’s going on.
O’Connell: More positive and frequent press outside of reviews. Profiles, human interest stories, interviews, etc. We have a very generous and community invested theater community. People need to know their favorite performers as “real” people who read, shop, have a family, go to movies, museums and concerts, cook, garden, travel, sports, etc.
Kramer: To continue to elevate its game! We have to keep moving forward so that as our architecture, cuisine, and overall culture gets sent out to other regions and the nation, we are also ready in the theater community to showcase work of the highest standard possible to the rest of the country.