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Future of New York Theater Spotlight of NAJP Conference

By Jo Kadlecek

Can the theater industry in New York survive after Sept. 11? How can theater become more important to tourists, local neighborhoods and boroughs? How can the next NYC mayor help the theater industry? What role does art and theater play in rebuilding New York?

Such questions and others were center stage at a recent conference entitled, "Wonderful Town: The Future of Theater in New York" held at Columbia's School of Journalism. Sponsored by the National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP) and Columbia's Graduate School of the Arts, critics, scholars, and representatives from various arts coalitions, government agencies and theater companies on and off Broadway gathered for a two-day examination of the economic, political, real estate and cultural issues facing New York's performing arts.

"Sept. 11 hasn't changed the questions; it's just intensified them," said Evangeline Morphos, associate professor of theatre, in the conference's opening session regarding updates and initiatives affecting both commercial and not-for-profit theater groups after Sept. 11. Panelists agreed that New York's theater industry has not planned well for the future but increased financial concerns and current events warrant strategic thinking.

Jed Bernstein, president of The League of American Theatres and Producers, said his organization as well as others had been exploring ways to reduce costs, increase revenues and make a charitable statement for victims of the World Trade Center tragedy. Many in the theater industry have already given back after Sept. 11 by offering lower ticket prices and studio rent to help keep shows open as much as possible. Initially, the collective response, Bernstein said, was "rapid, collaborative, right and had a strong business result."

Nonetheless, theaters across the city are struggling to carry on due not only to the World Trade Center attacks but to recent anthrax scares, causing many theater goers and tourists to stay home instead of risk going out. According to Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (ART-NY), a group that represents 350 off-Broadway theater groups, ten companies were "Ground Zero" theaters, one was housed in the World Trade Center, and the direct and indirect loss has been great. ART-NY has organized fundraising workshops, provided small loans and advocated for additional funding for theaters with already small budgets. "We have a tough road ahead and have to be proactive," Louloudes said. "We need funders to stay the course with us because the arts are what make the city great."

Trends in research also support the need to stay the course. Kevin McCarthy, a senior social scientist from RAND, reported on how research shows issues in the performing arts are changing. In addition to increased competition for entertainment with television and the Internet, participation in the arts is a mixed bag with hands on involvement increasing. McCarthy reported that total attendance is up due primarily to an increasingly educated population. He added that organization and financial issues remain pressing and that policy and marketing changes are affecting the industry. "The good news is there is a market for theater," McCarthy told the audience. "The bad news is that 9/11 will affect theater more than the other performing arts."

Overall, discussion at the conference focused on the economic and political issues facing the city and the industry. If theater loses support, so will supporting industries like restaurants, hotels, real estate and retail, said Randall Bourschiedt, president of the Alliance for the Arts, a non-profit arts advocacy organization in New York. As a $13 billion industry, theater must become a serious priority for the city as it addresses the financial implications of Sept. 11 on non-profit theaters and the surrounding businesses they affect.

Most panelists agreed that the key to ensuring the financial success of theater and the cultural contribution it can make to rebuilding New York will depend on whether representatives from various commercial and non profit groups within the industry can come together as a unified voice to overcome the challenges Sept. 11 impose. New York's theater situation is unlike that of other cities and will require cooperation between the artistic community, business leaders and the government. As Bruce Weber of the New York Times told the audience, "We must begin to see the incredible contributions to society actors make in their art. Having an artistic community is vital to the city, yet it's becoming increasingly difficult for actors to survive." A report of the conference, which will set an agenda for further research and action, will be published in late December and made available through the NAJP according to Michael Janeway, NAJP director and professor of journalism at Columbia.

Published: Nov 02, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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