Several years ago the New York Times Published a somewhat whimsical article predicting the demise of legitimate theatre outside of a few large Broadway houses. The situation has completely changed since then, and the ads of new and original theatre groups bid for one's attention in the Sunday Times. This has come about through the demands of both the actors and their patrons. In everything from old cabarets to settlement houses, eager young actors and actresses are producing the gamut from the classics to the esoteric avant garde works more or less native to the Village.
Equity, the all-powerful actors' union, is open to anyone who can land a paying job--and afford their initiation fee. Hence in 1952 some 83% of Equity members were unemployed. The ranks of those aspiring to frame and bright lights had been swollen by a large crop of college students interested in the arts and by thousands of veterans who had studied dramatic arts under the GI Bill.
Moreover, the "good time" psychology of the patrons of New York's drama mill and the enormous expense of putting a Broadway show on the boards has forced Broadway into dependence on temporary "hits" that rapidly draw large audiences and then fade into oblivion before next month's epic. A show that does not promise to be immediately popular with a mass audience is completely impractical. Few can afford to pay $12 or more for a pair of tickets to a show that hasn't been predigested and approved. For example, Candide recently closed to a loss of nearly half a million dollars. On the other hand, Take a Giant Step by Louis Peterson required $70,000 to produce on Broadway and only $6700 for a very successful off-Broadway production.
So, understandably enough, the more enterprising of the young, talented, and unemployed have raised enough capital either to make a small show-case for themselves or act in new, experimental or off-beat works that by their nature are only appealing to a small audience. For example, David Ross and the Fourth Street Theatre have made a very good thing out of producing a cycle of Chekhov plays, even though their recent production of Strinberg's Easter did not have the financial success of their earlier productions.
Another point is that such drama demands an intimate kind of stage that is utterly unsuited to the stadium-like, hot-dogs-and-soda atmosphere of a large Broadway theatre. The Iceman Cometh, probably the most impressive production last year, depends for its success on the intimate association and communication between actors and audience which the Circle-in-the-Square's arena production can provide. The Three-Penny Opera, also greatly successful both financially and artistically, likewise depends on intimate staging.
The economics of Broadway make it nearly imperative to seat 1200 to 1800 people or even more, and the production must be large, loud, and brassy to attract a big audience. Yet the most worthwhile plays in the dramatic repertoire will neither admit of such elaborate production nor draw the kind of audience necessary. Thus off-Broadway is not a substitute for Broadway, but is complementary, and is in many cases an improvement on it.
On the other hand, few off-Broadway companies have a life beyond a year or two. When a group is successful, the bright lights who made it so will advance up the ladder to the Broadway stage; if not successful, they will be back pounding the Pavements. For instance, Jose Quintero, director of The Iceman Cometh, directed Long Day's Journey into Night on Broadway. Me Candido, a very warm and pleasant new play presented by a non-profit settlement house group has been sold to the movies; Kim Stanley and many other now successful actors and actresses began their career on the off-Broadway stage.
Off-Broadway is thus the only real showcase for both actors and playwrights. Several companies wish to produce new plays exclusively, thus achieving a workshop for both actor and writer that is self-supporting. Among these is Ira Cirker's New Theatre Company, which has taken a lease on the Jan Hus Theatre. Not only do these artists hope to get their daily bread, but also to mold a dynamic and living theatre. The Shakespearewrights are one of the most promising of these groups. Composed largely of Yale Drama School graduates, they have produced several works of the bard, and are now engaged in the U.S. premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia.
Even Broadway actors are often out of work, and thus have a chance to continue their trade with a little more freedom than before. The Phoenix, not properly an off-Broadway theatre, specializes in producing the more worthwhile plays with distinguished casts who work for nominal salaries.
But the life of an off-Broadway producer or actor is far from idyllic. The main reason why off-Broadway groups can keeps their costs so far below the Broadway level is that the various stage-crafts unions have permitted their members to work for considerably less than union minimums. Equity also occasionally suspends its $80 weekly minimum wage so that some companies pay their actors as little as $25 per week. But then no one goes into acting to make money, for the average actor has an annual income of less than a thousand dollars.
Perhaps one of the most puzzling things about this theatre renaissance is that it has remained exclusive to New York. There are very few top-notch small theatre groups except for those associated with Universities in any other part of the country. This is to be expected, for actors, like everyone else, need a community where their craft is accepted and respected. Theatre is a business that depends on continually making new contacts which are not usually available outside of New York.
In all, the off-Broadway movement is perhaps the most important development in American arts in many years. American theatre is respected all over the world as inferior to none. This reputation is in large measure due to the courage and willingness to experiment of American actors, producers, and playwrights. Add the only real opportunity for this sort of experimentation is on off-Broadway.