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The Show Goes On (One Night a Week) How Off Broadway shows are thriving with limited performances

By LINDA BUCHWALD

Ed Gaynes manages the St. Luke's Theatre, currently shared by five shows, and the Actors Temple Theatre, currently shared by two shows. He also produces four of the productions that run in those spaces. Why, one might wonder, would anyone take on so many projects at once?

"It had gotten out of control doing the regular eight-show-a-week scheduling," Gaynes says. "The contracts and the rents and everything were so ridiculous that it was costing $300,000–500,000 to do a small play and a lot more to do a large play. It was very hard to recoup that money if you could even raise it in the first place. Now, by sharing space, we've cut the budgets not just in half, but literally by 75% because there are all different agreements with the unions and all the costs are less and you maximize your audience."

Like Gaynes, many other Off- and off-Off Broadway producers are realizing it's economically viable to run a show once or twice a week, or even once a month.

By running less frequently, these shows have time to build their audiences. "A lot of those shows [that have eight performances a week]—unless something really works out—can open and close very quickly," says Eugene Pack, creator of Celebrity Autobiography, which runs once a month at the Triad Theatre. That show has found success by having famous people read from autobiographies of other famous people.

"We're now still up and running three years later because we didn't do the traditional Tuesday through Sunday," Pack notes. "There's something exciting about keeping the longevity because it's not every single night. If you're every single night and it's not successful for whatever reason, you're done."

Brian Childers, who plays legendary performer Danny Kaye in the musical Danny and Sylvia (one of Gaynes' shows at St. Luke's), says he'd love to perform eight times a week. However, given the choice between performing once a week and closing, he'd rather have his show stay open. "It keeps us as actors visible," he says.
 
When he's not performing in Danny and Sylvia, which has been running since 2009, he earns money as a cater waiter and maintains the actor's life of going on auditions and performing in benefits and cabarets. Kimberly Faye Greenberg, his co-star, also stars twice a week in One Night With Fanny Brice at St. Luke's and is a dresser for Broadway's Billy Elliot.

When Danny and Sylvia opened in 2009, it was playing four shows a week and making a nice profit, Gaynes says, but had they increased to 8 shows, expenses would have more than doubled while ticket sales would have stayed roughly the same. He adds, "I had a theory, and it's been proven. If you're going to sell x number of tickets in eight shows, you're probably going to sell almost that many in four shows unless you're Wicked on Broadway and you're selling out, but that doesn't happen very much Off Broadway. So they come when they know the show is playing."

In the case of  Celebrity Autobiography, attracting audiences is easy. The show doesn't have a huge advertising budget, but when Mario Cantone reads from Justin Bieber's memoir, the press pays attention. Typically, the show has a line around the block and audiences are packed into the small Triad space. "It creates this unique, once a month event [where] you're in the right place at the right time, and it's so much fun as opposed to something you can do any night of the week," Pack says.

But what about shows that don't have major celebrities to lure an audience? Gaynes says TDF sales are crucial. Meanwhile, Gary Shaffer, director of You've Got Hate Mail, a farce at the Triad that's told entirely through emails, says that because so much advertising has become web-based, it's become cheaper and more creative. For example, You've Got Hate Mail promotes its shows through a Facebook fan page and email blasts, while the stars of Danny and Sylvia  promote their show on BroadwayBlogspot.com, a website for theatre professionals that they also happen to run.

Cross-promotion is also a key marketing tool. The Triad and St. Luke's have multiple shows running, so audiences come to one show and sometimes buy tickets for other productions in the same space. Since You've Got Hate Mail often features celebrity performers like Julia Duffy and General Hospital actress Meg Bennett, it's easy to imagine the Celebrity Autobiography crowd buying tickets.

Catering to an audience's schedule is also essential. You've Got Hate Mail runs at The Triad on Fridays at 7 p.m. because it courts office parties, happy hour crowds, and commuters. Gaynes tries to schedule shows with an older audience into matinee slots, while shows that skew younger run on Friday and Saturday nights. Celebrity Autobiography  runs on Monday nights, when most shows are dark, so that Broadway actors can participate.

The limited schedule is not without its challenges. Out of town visitors may want to see a show, but they may not be in town on the night that it's showing. But for producers like Gaynes, the pros outweigh the cons: "None of these shows would have been produced otherwise," he says.

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Linda Buchwald is a writer based in New York City. You can find her on Twitter at @PataphysicalSci