Broadway is back, Broadway is back, and so on ad infinitum, comes the refrain as each of the shuttered Main Stem productions resumes performances. And every time I hear it, I make the same response – there’s more to theatre than Broadway. Past the lights of a specific section of midtown Manhattan real estate, away from the souvenir shops and concession stands with sky-high prices, is the off-, off-off, and independent theatre the rest of us can afford to see. It’s the theatrical activity that actually drives innovation, creates the next generation of must-see commercial shows – and, as I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, keeps being ignored by our cheerleaders and gatekeepers.
But it’s back as well. And I’ve made sure to see for myself.
Throughout the month of October, I’ve managed to make it to three off-off Broadway productions. (They’ve all been written by friends of mine, so I won’t be reviewing them here other than to say that if a friend of mine writes a play, you ought to go and see it.) Tony DiMurro’s 1-2-3 Manhunt played at Theatre for the New City, on the Lower East Side; Jody Christopherson’s Tousseau/Antoinette played the IRT theatre in the West Village, and Arielle Beth Klein’s My Shiksa Boyfriend went up at the Tank in Midtown. Three different places in Manhattan, all facing the challenging of staging theater in the midst of a pandemic, with neither the spotlight nor the resources of their Broadway counterparts.
So how did they do?
The important thing to understand about theater at this scale, at least in Manhattan, is that there’s almost always multiple theaters within any given space. Sometimes that means that a single organization has multiple theaters on site, as at Theater for the New City (they have four, I believe, strewn about their labyrinthine complex). Sometimes that means multiple theater companies in the building – IRT is on the third floor of the same Christopher Street building where the New Ohio theater is housed, the later in the basement floor. Sometimes, both are true – the Tank has multiple venues on the second floor of the same building on 36th street that houses the Barrow Group, Abingdon Theater, and a number of other arts organizations. So rather than dealing with one Broadway crowd, these companies are dealing with multiple groups of people, intersecting and intermingling in the middle of a pandemic, in order to keep their productions up and running.
Successfully, too, it would seem.
At Theater for the New Cities, the old lifers of the Lower East Side who volunteer there are doing a basic proof of vaccination check when you arrive, as they try and sort out what show you’re there to see; they’re also the ones who make the front-of-house announcements, masked and exhorting you to remain so as well. The IRT theater, down a long and lonely corridor, has much less complicated foot traffic but a more rigorous screening protocol in place; it’s the only place where anybody took my temperature. (Through a remote device, O filthy-minded Constant Reader.) It’s also the only place where I saw a device, a kind of aerosolized air gun, which had been constructed to sanitize the space after each show. The folks in that space had the comparative luxury of being out of the way of anything else in the building – unlike the folks in the Tank, where about a half-dozen separate events were playing, and house managers were deployed throughout the building with walkie-talkies, trying to conduct traffic through their own facemasks. That’s what’s going on, off the Main Stem. I mention it here because I feel it will need to be documented. Not that putting up independent theater isn’t always a ridiculous proposition, always trying to put works of art together with about five bucks, some hot glue, and some duct tape. But when that’s how you’re literally trying to keep the plague at bay as well? Well, once again, I remind you that Broadway isn’t the only theater in the hall, and it’s the dives and the holes-in-the-wall that actually drive innovation.