Often Big-Footed by Broadway, Small Theater Struggles to Eke Out Existence

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As Broadway's biggest names gather for the Tony Awards this weekend, one of the city's oldest off-Broadway theaters is patiently trying to dig itself out of a deep financial hole.

Many smaller theaters have struggled to survive in the era of celebrity-driven ticket sales — and some like The Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village, host to work by legends such as Stein, O'Neill, Beckett and Albee, have had to get creative in order to do so.

Theater owner Angelina Fiordellisi, who bought the theater in 1996 and re-established its reputation for birthing new plays, has been battling a $250,000 deficit that at one point had it on the verge of closing. Total revenue fell about 40 percent, Fiordellisi estimated, as a result of foundation funding shriveling up in the recession and plummeting ticket sales and space rentals.

"It's been more movie-star driven," Fiordellisi said of staging a show and drawing an audience. "And that’s one of the reasons that I stopped doing it."

The pressure to garner star power in order to get financing has also weighed heavily on Fiordellisi. 

"I've talked to accomplished playwrights," she said. "A number of them now have said when they approach producers who've done their work in the past with a new play, the first thing they ask is, 'Well, let's see if we can get Matt Damon to do that part,' before they'll make any commitment."

Playwright Rajiv Joseph, who had his first professional production at the Cherry Lane in 2006, said he sees why star power can be necessary to lure in audience members, particularly to lesser-known shows. His play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" is now starring Robin Williams on  Broadway.

"If ticket prices were lower, we wouldn't need big stars," Joseph said. "But people come to New York, and they have a weekend. It's like, 'What do I want to spend a hundred bucks on?'"

George Forbes, president of the Off-Broadway League, said when producers and theater artists find themselves in tough economic times, it can actually force them to become more creative. He said that can ultimately lead to more interesting work: shows where actors play many roles, for example, or the set is sparse and suggestive.

"The great thing about off-Broadway, I suppose, is the spirit of the whole thing," Forbes said. "The more you tie their hands, the more you close the door, the more they look for that window or use their feet to try and figure out how they’re gonna solve the problem. So they experiment."

Forbes was one in a chorus of supporters who encouraged Fiordellisi not to sell her theater.

And with some creative business ideas, he changed her mind. In August, Forbes’s theater will come on as the managing agent for the Cherry Lane, helping Fiordellisi’s theater experiment with new ways to cut costs and possibly even share some with Forbes' theater, the Lortel — such as house managers or other staff members.

That has Fiordellisi feeling relieved -- and optimistic.

"This theater has an amazing, resilient spirit," she said, standing on the empty main stage, looking out over a quiet house. "I mean it went through the depression. It went through a world war. It made it through 9/11. And we're going to make it through this economic setback.”

In the last year, Fiordellisi has laid off five workers. She stopped producing shows and developing new plays, focusing primarily on renting her space. By doing that, she said, the theater’s been able to pay down more than half the deficit. Within 18 months, she hopes to start producing a few plays again.

These days, there’s a quote from Andy Warhol at the bottom of Fiordellisi's emails: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”