By Donna Hoke; photos by kc kratt
Just over thirty years ago, Studio Arena was the only professional theater in town. Today, Buffalo boasts twenty-six professional and semi-professional companies, an extraordinary number for a city this size. We asked five people who founded some of Buffalo’s best-known theatersLorna Hill, artistic director of Ujima Company; Neal Radice, executive director of Alleyway Theatre; Saul Elkin, artistic director of Jewish Repertory Theatre of WNY and Shakespeare in Delaware Park; Vincent O’Neill, artistic director of Irish Classical Theatre Company and current Theatre Alliance of Buffalo (TAB) president; and David Lamb, artistic director of the Kavinoky Theatreto discuss the issues confronting this robust community. With more than 125 years of experience among them, they had plenty to say.
How did Studio Arena’s closing affect Buffalo theater?
Lamb: It was a disaster, because now there is no national theater in Buffalo.
Hill: I don’t know that it affected us. If Studio’s credibility had caused some money to rain down on the second-tier theaters, its presence might have made a difference. It was an asset, but it did not dominate our theater scene; a lot of other companies do very important work.
Lamb: It was an incredible resource. When Kavinoky was really successful back in the eighties, many people we used on stage were Studio actors who stayed in town to do another show.
O’Neill: I was saddened by it, but, in an ironic way, its loss strengthened the other companies. When Studio was here, it was Studio Arena and all the other theaters. Now it’s a more level playing field.
Elkin: When it closed, many of those subscribers subscribed elsewhere.
From left: Lorna Hill, Neal Radice, Saul Elkin, Vincent O’Neill, and David Lamb.
Why do we see so many of the same plays repeated?
Radice: The fact that certain works draw large audiences is why we call them “commercial.” When we produce A Christmas Carol, we sell out, and when we produce a new play by an unknown playwright, we struggle for audience.
Lamb: If people don’t recognize the title, they don’t buy tickets. Subscribers come, but, in order to cover costs, you need single-ticket sales. We can’t afford the publicity to make those titles familiar to audiences before they come, and I blame the media for that. The News says it’s not their job to publicize theater, but it is their job to write about new offerings so we’re not just shooting blanks in the dark. They don’t do that nearly enough.
O’Neill: Companies like Road Less Traveled and Alleyway that have new plays as their mission are very courageous and do a great service to playwrights, but it’s starting from scratch when you don’t have a Noel Coward or Tennessee Williams to help you fill seats.
Radice: On the plus side, Buffalo is a place where one can afford to be non-commercial. One can dare to do something new and know that, even if the audience doesn’t come, we’ll likely still be around afterward.
Lamb: In this country, theater is not subsidized nearly to the extent that it needs to be, and that’s a disgrace. If we’re totally dependent on ticket sales, we have to diminish the product and it becomes okay entertainment. I have nothing against entertainment, but if you want theater that is imaginative, you need public subsidy so people are brave enough to do that.
How, then, can you attract a more diverse audience?
Elkin: I cannot tell you how often that comes up at meetings of the Theatre Alliance. It’s a crucial effort.
O’Neill: What we’ve discovered is that theater is like Guinness; it’s an acquired habit but well worth the acquisition. It’s getting them in the door in the first place that’s so difficult. We give away free tickets with our subscriptions just so our subscribers will introduce a friend to our company. We also need to go after young professionals. There is such an immediate economic nexus between the theaters and the businesses that surround them that people are not aware of. The most recent study at UB cites a seven-to-one return on each dollar if you invest in culturals.
Hill: Our audiences are already diverse. On any given show, we reach out to every aspect that is affected by the topic of the show. So for a show like Pyretown, which involves health care, you reach out to the cared-for and the caregivers, the handicapped community, and social services. We contact them by e-mail and send out 5,000 postcards. Ujima has a standing company of about twenty people from all walks of life, and they reach out to their networks.
Radice: I see the greatest potential for growing attendance numbers by encouraging the current theater audiencewhich is very largeto attend more often. And we need to better organize how we identify the new theatergoer after a first time at Shea’s or Shakespeare in the Park, and coax them into giving the rest of the menu a taste. A united and detailed cooperative marketing program would be required.
Elkin: The TAB has talked about a mega multi-subscription, but theaters are not comfortable with that. They’re afraid of losing subscriptions, but I like the idea of being able to choose.
With cultural audiences graying, it seems imperative that to survive, you must attract younger theatergoers. How do you see that happening?
Lamb: When high school teachers feel free enough to teach theater and take students on trips to theater, that’s where our future audiences will come from.
Elkin: College audiences. If I’m doing a play that will interest college students, and I get to the English faculty and offer group deals, we get the students. And at Jewish Rep, we recently invited the thirty-to-forty age group to a reading followed by a coffee house, and it was very well attended.
Radice: Companies like [Theatre of Youth] need to continue creating new theatergoers. Little is done to identify the children who have been brought to love theater so that we can better attract them to theater as adults.
O’Neill: We’re collaborating with Torn Space because they have a very different audience. We used to have a series called Sundays at Seven if you liked more challenging authorsIonesco or Beckettand we’re reviving that next year with Torn Space. I also direct a play there every season, and that cross-fertilization is very healthy.
Hill: If we had to rely on one demographic to survive, we’d have been out of business a long time ago. Our plays are mostly attended by people who want to know more.
Is cost a factor?
Hill: It’s a lot of money, and, at the same time, at $25, you’re giving the seats away. It’s problematic that there’s no public funding; that’s why the problem exists.
Radice: There are many options for the theatergoer who is pressed for cash. Alleyway, for example, has been offering pay-what-you-can performances for twenty years.
O’Neill: Our first Saturday is also pay-what-you-can, and we have a thing called 20/20/20 where twenty minutes before the show, we sell twenty tickets for twenty dollars.
Elkin: Most theaters are flexible with prices for students, seniors, groups, anything to get people into the seats. Several theaters have free preview nights. And, of course, readings are always free.
Is there any truth to the idea that some people just don’t want to go downtown?
Elkin: I live in Amherst and I had a conversation with a neighbor when I was acting at the Kav. I said, “Why not come down?” and he said, “I never go downtown.” I’m afraid that’s the mindset. Musicalfare [in Amherst] is going from four- to six-week performances next season, and they have a ninety-five percent suburban audience. Yeah, it’s a problem.
Lamb: I’ve always said I would open a theater in Amherst tomorrow, because there is a feeling that people don’t want to go downtown. On the other hand, that’s negated by what happens when Shea’s has Jersey Boys.
Elkin: They’ll go to Shea’s because there’s safety in numbers.
O’Neill: We offer matinees for those who are afraid of coming at night, which is totally unfounded. If somebody pulls a gun in a nightclub at 3 a.m., for the next two years, people are afraid to come downtown. It’s unfortunate that it takes so much to change people’s perceptions.
Do reviews help or hurt?
O’Neill: I loathe and detest the star system in the Buffalo News. It’s an injustice to the reviewer because very often, people don’t read the review, and it’s an injustice to the theater, because if a show gets two stars, no one’s going to go near it.
Radice: The loss of a second newspaper in town was a great hardship. For most people, there is only one opinion to influence whether or not they buy a seat. Decisions are typically left to counting stars and reading review titles that too often lean toward the snappy or snide rather than informative.
What could the theater community still use?
Radice: Actors of diverse ethnicities.
Hill: More women playwrights and black male actors.
O’Neill: Awareness of what a vital economic engine arts are. The general population thinks of the arts as esoteric and “not for me.”
Lamb: It would be terrific if a twenty-five-year-old genius put together a company just to tour high schools. That would be a good thing for Buffalo.
Donna Hoke is editor of Buffalo Spree Home.
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