Saturday, March 1, 2008

The curtain comes down

This is a bit of old news by now in the theater world, but it brings up some issues I've been thinking about ever since I became a regular theatergoer last year. On Tuesday, Playbill reported that the 43-year-old Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., would be canceling the rest of its season and closing its doors due to a $3-million debt.

Studio Arena's final production, To Kill a Mockingbird, closed on Sunday. It was described on the Web site as the largest cast the theater had seen in years. The next shows were supposed to be David Hare's play The Vertical Hour and after that, the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim.

The story kind of shocked me, because Buffalo is a big city. Its population is nearly 300,000, and more than a million people live in the metropolitan area. A region that big should be able to support a repertory theater. I've lived in cities that are much smaller and have done it successfully.

And it's not that people in Buffalo aren't theatergoers. The city's Shea's Performing Arts Center, which has more than a half-dozen corporate sponsors judging from its Web site, brings in touring companies of Broadway shows. The Drowsy Chaperone is playing next week, and Wicked is coming for a month over the summer.

In looking around for stories about the Studio Arena Theatre's closing, and the reasons for it, I found some of the usual suspects. A story in The Buffalo News reported a drop in season subscriptions, an aging population in the city, the loss of big donors and increased competition from other theaters.

A commentary from arts editor Jeff Simon is titled "In the end, Studio Arena lost its soul." Simon decries what he sees as "risk aversion which is ultimately the biggest risk of all, the suicidal insistence on playing it safe and the shameless pandering which, for so many years now, has made so many people in Buffalo soul-sick about the continuing operations of Studio Arena Theatre."

The comments on message boards are the kinds of things that seem to get trotted out whenever people start to bemoan the state of the American theater: an audience that is growing older and not being replaced by younger people, high ticket prices, unappealing shows.

A woman named Christina, who said that her grandmother had been a Studio Arena subscriber, put it this way: "Over the years, it was obvious that the loyal theatre goers were an aging fan base and younger subscribers were in the minority. In this day in age, there are many more entertainment outlets competing for our attention and limited discretionary income than perhaps in past generations."

I don't know enough about the situation in Buffalo to comment on the reasons for Studio Arena's problems, and none of what people like Christina say is particularly new, but I've also noticed the aging fan base, especially when I go to the theater outside of Broadway.

I'm in my 40s, and sometimes I feel like I'm among the youngest people in the audience. Granted, I usually take in Sunday matinees, and maybe that's not the optimal time for twentysomethings or thirtysomethings to see a show. Still, I'm sure there are plenty of 20- and 30-year-olds at the movies on weekend afternoons. It's really not that much more expensive.

At my local theater, Trinity Repertory Company, you can get rush tickets for $15 two hours before a performance. The theater seems to enjoy great support from the community and corporate sponsors, and has close ties to a university. It has a terrific troupe of resident actors, imaginative staging of new plays and classics, and I've enjoyed everything I've seen there. (In fact, one time this season I was too clever for my own good and couldn't get tickets for any price because the Sunday matinees were completely sold out). But the audience definitely seems to skew older.

For some reason, when I go to touring productions of Broadway shows, which are more expensive, there seems to be a much broader age range. Maybe it's because they're usually musicals and musicals have an easier time finding an audience. Also, they're playing for a much more limited amount of time, usually just five days, from Wednesday to Sunday.

I don't know how much overlap there is between the audience for touring Broadway musicals and for local repertory theater. I like to think I'm not the only one who goes to both and enjoys both, but I simply don't know. Maybe they're two separate audiences.

I hope the Studio Arena Theatre can get back on its feet next year, maybe with a reduced schedule or in partnership with a local university. Its closing is sad, and a real loss for the city. One thing I've come to believe in the past year is that a great theater scene is part of what makes a city vibrant and keeps downtown areas alive. The more choices, the better it is for everyone.

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