I was really excited to see the article title on Non-Profit Quarterly, “NYC’s Small Theaters Have Limited Budgets but Great Cultural Influence” I thought it was great that someone was focusing on cultural impact rather than economic impact of the arts.
But this isn’t entirely the case. The subtitle of the study conducted in NYC is “New York City Small Theater Industry Cultural and Economic Impact Study” Cultural impact does come first, but it is only covered in about a two pages while economic impact is covered in 7-8 pages of the study.
The cultural impact part of the report probably doesn’t contain anything revelatory for most people in the non-profit arts, but it is gratifying to see it acknowledged. For example (my emphasis):
In recent years, a number of small theaters in New York have evolved beyond singular-purpose performance houses into neighborhood-oriented cultural centers. As venues continue to open in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, many have made efforts to strengthen connections with local communities and businesses. Educational and family-oriented programs, as well as discounted tickets for local residents and local hiring, are commonly used to foster connections. In this way, they provide ‘social capital’ in addition to ‘cultural capital’ for neighborhoods and the city-at-large. This role often includes providing non-performance programming aimed at the needs of the local community, including social justice initiatives, as well as providing their theater venues for community events when not being used for rehearsals or productions.
The study also points out that a number of shows like Hadestown, The Band’s Visit and Hamilton had their initial development in these theaters. But few hit shows emerge from these spaces compared to the continued, on going impact of these other activities, initiatives and partnerships.
Another familiar topic that is covered is the challenge of audience development as print advertising loses its effectiveness and fewer people are producing quality critical reviews of work via a centrally accessed source:
As a result, newer and less-known theaters bear a considerable burden, as the cultivation of an audience base relies heavily on word of mouth and social media, as well as critical review. In order to address this, theaters are adopting a wide variety of strategies and tools. These include using innovative marketing efforts, leveraging social media and online platforms to target younger demographics that may not traditionally find their way to the theater, initiating strategic partnerships across theaters within the sector, such as co-producing, or neighborhood-oriented partnerships like in the historic South Village, below Washington Square Park, and utilizing the existing and growing number of listing platforms. When successful, these efforts not only boost ticket sales but also achieve a broader goal for a number of theaters, which is to increase inclusivity by cultivating audiences who have historically been underrepresented in the theater, including people of color, people with disabilities, and younger audiences. Theaters are looking to be more rooted in a specific place, deeply embedded in the local framework and engaged with local communities.
One of the great benefits of this study, even for people who don’t live in NYC is the level of detail it goes into on many operational topics. It looks at the role of unions in NYC; wage requirements; finance; donor cultivation; maps & statistics on venue closures since 2011.
It explores the challenges faced by theater companies that end up performing their works at different places all the time, making it difficult for interested people to find them again.
The report also provides a glossary defining many theatre related terms and job roles.
All in all, it is a good introduction to the non-Broadway theater operating environment in NYC which has its own unique characteristics, but also shares alot in common with any non-profit performing arts venue.