If there's one essential ingredient for a successful day or night at the theatre in New York, it's this: taking pleasure in discovery.
If indulging your sense of wonder is what you're after, you've come to the right place. Theatre is a kick-start to the imagination, and nowhere do the jolts come faster and with more range of possibility than in New York City.
EPISODE 1: Theatre 101 with Julie Halston ("Choosing the Perfect Show")
In negotiating the ins and outs of this special world, it also helps, of course, to have some practical information. This guide is designed to address that need—to give you the lay of the land, to offer tips and suggestions, and to make your entry as easy as possible. Armed with these simple tips, you'll be primed to enjoy an experience as vital to the heartbeat of New York as the Knicks, the stock market and the E train.
Let's start at the very beginning.
What is Broadway?
The center of the English-speaking theatre universe is a dazzling piece of real estate called Manhattan. The island is host to a dizzying array of theatres and theatre companies of all shapes, stripes and sizes. But while Broadway is the word most people associate with New York theatre, the plays and musicals that qualify as Broadway shows represent only a small fraction of the vast numbers of productions put on around the city each year.
The demarcation is quite simple: A play or musical earns the right to call itself "Broadway" if it runs in one of the 39 theatres that are considered Broadway houses. The designation is a crucial one, for only the shows in these theatres are eligible for the Tony Awards, the coveted prizes awarded each June to the new shows of the previous 12 months.
These 39 theatres are virtually all concentrated in 10 blocks of Manhattan's West Side between 41st and West 51st Streets. (A few, like the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center and the refurbished Studio 54, are located just outside this unofficial theatre district.) Able to seat anywhere from 580 people (the Helen Hayes, on West 44th) to more than 1,900 (the Gershwin, on West 51st), they are for the most part the largest venues in which to see a theatrical production in New York.
What is Off Broadway?
Like a planet with multiple moons, New York theatre is a vast system with many distinct orbits. Off Broadway is a fascinating sphere unto itself. The name refers to a diverse assortment of smaller theatres and not-for-profit theatre troupes, located everywhere from the Upper West Side to downtown's TriBeCa and offering everything from Shakespeare to original American drama. (A few even operate in the outer boroughs.) While there is no precise formula for defining Off Broadway, the shows are usually in intimate spaces of between 99 and 500 seats. For every rule, though, exceptions exist: The Brooklyn Academy of Music, for instance, is an Off Broadway venue on the Brooklyn side of the East River with theatres of 2,100 and 870 seats.
Production budgets and ticket prices tend to be lower than those of Broadway. This is, however, no reflection on quality. Off Broadway has evolved into the nation's most important incubator of new work, particularly new plays, and even in some cases new musicals. A good number of Broadway productions, in fact, begin life in the smaller playhouses of Off Broadway.
What is Off-Off Broadway?
"Off-Off Broadway" or "Indie Theatre" is yet another designation of professional production, applied to an even more adventurous group of offerings. The theatres are often small or unorthodox--converted storefronts or renovated garages, for instance, or even school auditoriums, but mainly they are in spaces called "black box theatres" (traditionally with the walls painted black to give optimal versatility to the designers) that seat between 40 and 99 audience members and have mostly short runs of two or three weeks, with a few offering continuous or extended runs.
These uniquely intimate venues are peppered throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, the Bronx and New Jersey, but you'll find a generous number of them housed in traditional theatregoing areas like the Theatre District (the West 40s), the Garment District and Chelsea (West 30s and 20s), the East and West Village (14th St. to Houston) and SoHo (South of Houston), as well as in enclaves of downtown's Financial District.
Off-Off Broadway is in fact the home of the majority of theatre artists working in New York today, with more than 300 small-venue producers presenting seasons each year. The quality of the work is on a par with any other theatre echelon in New York, with the added excitement of being close to the performers doing adventurous, memorable work. With ticket prices often lower than $20, you might even argue that Off-Off Broadway is the best ticket bargain in town.
When can I go?
Most Broadway shows operate on six-days-a-week schedules. (Monday is frequently a "dark" night, but some productions, taking advantage of a less competitive evening, choose to perform on Mondays.) Over the course of six days, most productions offer an eight-performance schedule.
Evening performances typically begin at 8 p.m. (though on Tuesdays, some shows have taken to starting at 7 p.m.—a bonus for parents with babysitters on the clock). Wednesday matinees traditionally start at 2 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. or in some cases 3 p.m.
Major Off Broadway companies for the most part mirror Broadway performance schedules. Smaller companies may be less predictable, concentrating the bulk of their runs on the weekends or even offering late-night performances at or beyond 10 p.m.
It's an excellent idea to build some extra time into your travel plans, because the show will go on at the appointed hour whether you're in your seat or not. In most instances, theatres won't seat late arrivals until an appropriate lull in the proceedings, and this might consign you to standing in the back of the theatre for the first several minutes or more. (Not to mention make you an unwelcome inconvenience to other patrons when you do finally make your way to your seat.)
Where can I find out more about shows?
Online, in addition to www.tdf.org, there are a variety of sites--Playbill.com, Broadwayworld.com and Theatermania.com among them--to mine for a wealth of pertinent information. The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time Out New York, The Village Voice and New York magazine all publish detailed theatre listings. Additionally, many of New York's subscription theatres--Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theater, to name just a few--maintain their own websites, as do most major individual productions. By visiting these sites in addition to TDF's site, you can get a sense, for example, of whether a particular show would be suitable for children.
How do I get tickets?
Ticket buying options have expanded enormously over the years. You can still walk up to a theatre box office and inquire about a performance that day or, in the case of most Broadway and Off Broadway shows, some months in advance. (A box office will only sell you tickets to shows scheduled at that particular theatre.)
On Broadway, there are two types of runs: open-ended and limited. A limited run is for a predetermined number of weeks, so if you're buying in advance, be aware of how long the show is scheduled to be around. Box offices will sell you at face value the best locations they have remaining at the price you're requesting. The most expensive seats usually are in the "orchestra" (which refers to the ground floor, at eye level with the stage, not the place where the musicians sit) and the front section of the "mezzanine," the tier immediately above the orchestra. Rear mezzanine seats and the seats on the next level above that, often referred to as the balcony, tend to be the lowest-priced. Many Broadway theatres post seating charts in the theatre lobby, so take a moment to look at the diagram before you pay for the seats.
In this age of e-commerce, of course, you don't need to show your face at the theatre door until showtime. You can buy full-price tickets to Broadway and many Off Broadway productions through one of two online services, Telecharge and Ticketmaster. Some smaller Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions use Ticket Central or SmartTix.
You can also buy tickets online directly from a production or theatre company Web site. All of the services mentioned above as selling tickets online also sell tickets by phone.
EPISODE 2: Theatre 101 with Julie Halston ("How to Buy a Ticket")
What if I buy tickets but can't go?
Most tickets are non-refundable and non-exchangeable, although theatres do allow for refunds or exchanges under special circumstances, such as when an above-the-title star of a show is unable to perform. You should go to your point of purchase as soon as possible and ask if they can exchange the tickets for a later date. (NOTE: This applies ONLY to tickets purchased through theatre box offices; it does NOT apply to tickets purchased at the TDF Discount Booth or through TDF membership.)
Where can I find deals and discounts?
For same-day discounted tickets, Theatre Development Fund operates three TKTS Discount Booths: one located "under the red steps" in Father Duffy Square on Broadway and 47th Street; one at the South Street Seaport and the third in Downtown Brooklyn at 1 MetroTech Center on the corner of Jay Street and Myrtle Street Promenade. Tickets at discounts of up to 50% are offered for Broadway and Off Broadway shows on the day of performance.
Some websites, such as Playbill.com and Theatermania.com, also offer advance discount tickets to a variety of Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions.
What are previews?
Sometimes you will hear that the show you are seeing is "in previews." What does that mean, can you go--and would you want to go?
Previews are the customary performance period at the very start of a show's run, before the critics have been invited to see it. The preview period can amount to a couple of performances or several weeks' worth of shows, depending on the complexity of the production. (Broadway shows preview for longer periods than Off Broadway.) Ticket prices are rarely reduced for previews; it's safe to say that while refinements are certainly made to shows in previews, what you see on the stage during that period will not be markedly different from what the critics see.
EPISODE 3: Theatre 101 With Julie Halston ("Theatre Etiquette")
What do I wear?
The days when people dressed up for the theatre are sadly in the past. Off Broadway has always been more casual than its uptown cousin, but now the Broadway dress code seems similarly relaxed. Not to discourage anyone who wants to get gussied up--you'll still see suits and ties in the audience, but you'll also see plenty of jeans and sneakers, not only at matinees but in the evening, as well. (The exception is a Broadway opening night, when an audience--most of it invited--may be asked to wear black tie.)
When should I arrive?
Most of the time theatres open their doors about 30 minutes before the "curtain" (even if there is no curtain--"curtain" is showbiz jargon for "start of the show"). If you've ordered your tickets by phone or online and haven't had them mailed to you in advance, you'll pick them up at the box office just before you enter. If it's a Broadway show on a Friday or Saturday night, be prepared for an extra bit of organized chaos: The crowds will be thick in and around the theatre.
Can I get food or drink at the theatre?
Most Broadway and some Off Broadway theatres have bars and concession stands, and they do a brisk business at intermission (though with increasing frequency, shows of roughly 100 minutes or less are doing away with intermissions). You're generally never supposed to bring food or drinks to your seat, though, nor from the street before the show (although you will find that water bottles can safely be smuggled in).
What can I take home?
You can't say the theatre leaves you empty-handed: Programs in New York theatres (unlike in, say, London) are free. Some Broadway shows also will sell glossy souvenir booklets chock-full of photos, production information and trivia, but the playbills that the ushers hand you as you enter don't cost a nickel. Some of the big musicals also have concession stands to sell T-shirts, mugs, keychains and other remembrances of the show you just enjoyed.
After the show--now what?
Have a drink or a dessert, of course--then go tell all your friends how much you loved it, and encourage them to get out and see more theatre!