Off Off Broadway Theater Groups Celebrate 20 Years in Business

Friday, March 02, 2012

On Friday, the non-profit, Obie-winning, Off Off Broadway theater company New Georges celebrates its 20th anniversary with performances, a dance party, food and cocktails.

Artistic Director Susan Bernfield, 47, has reason to raise a glass. She founded the company 20 years ago to create a place for female playwrights and directors to produce their work and despite two recessions, New Georges is doing just fine.

"When we first started in 1992, it was also the middle of a recession and we were told, 'You know, you're never going to reach the funding levels that the theaters that started a little bit before you have, it's just not going to happen,'" she said in her office on W. 27th St. The company's permanent workspace, The Room, is 10 blocks away. "And we've done everything and planned everything in accordance with that."

Theater critic and Columbia University Journalism professor Alisa Solomon says starting a successful theater group in the early 1990s went against the odds.

"Anybody had to be out of their minds to try to start a theater company 20 years ago," she said. "It was one of the worst times for the financial health and viability of Downtown [Manhattan] theaters. Between 1988 and 1992, the funding to New York arts groups by the National Endowment went down 24 percent. Between 1990 and 1992, state funding went down 41 percent and money from the Department of Cultural Affairs went down 20 percent."

New Georges, which has produced 36 shows that have gone on to be staged at venues in and beyond New York City, is not the only Off Off Broadway, Obie-winning company that has flourished since it opened in Downtown Manhattan in the early 1990s. Target Margin Theater, which opens a series of short work at the Bushwick Starr this month that explores the Russian avant-garde, celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first production last fall. HERE Arts Center, the Soho community arts center where Eve Ensler’s "The Vagina Monologues" and Basil Twist’s "Symphonie Fantastique" were developed, is planning its 20-year birthday party next spring.

David Herskovits founded Target Margin Theater in 1991.Solomon added that in addition to the economic downturn in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many theater and dance companies brought in a corporate management model that moved them to expand, hire and show a line of economic growth. As a result, many arts groups floundered because they became more focused on raising money than making art.

Artistic Director David Herskovits, 49, who founded Target Margin in 1991 after training with Richard Foreman, said the arts crisis in part moved him and others to start a new wave of theater. But it had its challenges.

"We needed to find new ways to work," he said. "There weren't going to be big NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grants. There weren't going to be big corporate sponsorships anymore, which has of course continued to be the case. I think that duress and that cycle of the field created a feeling of needing to make new work in different ways and together."

Photo: David Herskovits founded Target Margin Theater in 1991. (AOP Images)

Artistic Director Kristin Marting, 45, remembers how tough it was to get HERE Arts Center -- a then 13,000 square-foot space on Sixth Ave. between Spring and Dominick with three theaters, a gallery and a cafe -- renovated and opened in 1993.

"We knew we had an obstacle getting people to come west of Sixth Avenue and we had to really do everything by the seat of our pants," she said.

Actors, friends, technicians and volunteers pitched in to do the construction work and Marting helped lead a fundraising effort to raise the $350,000 they needed for the renovation. What they didn't raise, they borrowed. In 2005, the company bought the space at 145 Sixth Ave. and HERE Producing Director Kim Whitener says that's when the company's finances began to turn around.

Producing Director Kim Whitener and HERE Arts Center Co-Founder and Artistic Director Kristin Marting. The company is preparing to celebrate its 20th season in business.

HERE Arts Center Producing Director Kim Whitener, along with Artistic Director Kristin Marting who co-founded HERE Arts Center in 1993.

"It was such an ambitious project. If we knew what we knew after we opened, we would have never done it," Marting said. "And it was sort of this naive, like, 'We can do this!' energy that we had that made HERE open."

HERE Arts Center is now a place for artists to develop their work through residencies and for other companies like New Georges and Target Margin to stage their own productions. (In March, Target Margin, for example, will stage a production of "Uncle Vanya" there.)

When their paths don't cross through work, the artistic directors at HERE, New Georges and Target Margin meet at a regular poker game where they discuss challenges and share business models for keeping costs down. Those include low ticket prices ($25 and under), working on a project-by-project rather than a seasonal basis, doing co-productions with other theater groups and getting funding from a variety of sources (individuals, foundations, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York Council for the Arts, and sometimes, the National Endowment for the Arts).

Bernfield says although she's thrilled that New Georges is doing well 20 years after the company was founded, she still hasn't figured everything out, like how to continue to draw audiences in the age of the internet.

"I think people really want to stay home and Netflix things," she said. "And really demanding an audience by saying, 'Look we have an event we're putting on, this is gonna be something you can't miss' is becoming more and more what has to happen."

Bernfield says her team of three permanent staffers and dedicated volunteers is doing just that, and works hard to make sure their innovative plays and events are worth coming out for: "If you're able to let people into a core of emotional reality or emotional truth, people always connect to it and can follow it, as long as there's that way in."

New Georges' 20th Birthday Bash is on Friday from 7 P.M. to 12 A.M. at 3LC Art & Technology Center at 80 Greenwich Street. Get more information here. See a slideshow of plays produced and developed by New Georges, Target Margin Theater and HERE Arts Center below.

New Georges produced
Photo by Jim Baldassare. Courtesy of New Georges.
New Georges produced "Angela's Mixtape," written by Eisa Davis and directed by Liesl Tommy in 2009. Pictured here: Eisa Davis and Linda Powell.
Another New Georges production:
Photo by Jim Baldassare. Courtesy of New Georges.
Another New Georges production: "Milk," written by Emily DeVoti and directed by Jessica Bauman, was produced in 2010. Seen here, Jordan Baker, Noah Robbins and Peter Bradbury.
New Georges also produced
Photo by Jim Baldassare. Courtesy of New Georges.
New Georges also produced "God's Ear" in 2007, which was written by Jenny Schwartz, directed by Anne Kauffman and starred Monique Vukovic, Christina Kirk and Judith Greentree.
A Target Margin production of
Photo by Hunter Canning. Courtesy of Target Margin Theater
A Target Margin production of "The Tempest," which was performed at HERE Arts Center in 2011.
David Herskovits wrote
Photo by Sue Kessler. Courtesy of Target Margin Theater
David Herskovits wrote "The Really Big Once." The piece, which was produced by Target Margin in 2010, looks at the making of Tennessee Williams’s 1953 play “Camino Real.”
A scene from
Asta Bennie/flickr
A scene from "The Dinner Party," which was produced by Target Margin Theater in 2007.
Courtesy of HERE Arts Center
"Floating Point Waves" is showing in April at HERE Arts Center. The multimedia piece was co-created by Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya and is the culmination of a three-year residency at HERE.
Peter Flaherty and Jennie MaryTai Liu's multimedia dance theater work,
Photo courtesy of HERE Arts Center.
Peter Flaherty and Jennie MaryTai Liu's multimedia dance theater work, "Soul Leaves Her Body" was developed at the HERE Artist-in-Residency Program (HARP) in 2010.
Photo courtesy of HERE Arts Center.
"Border Towns," by Nick Brooke, was staged in 2010 at HERE and was also cultivated at the company's artist residency program.


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Comments [2]


bravo! these women are awesome! it is no small feat. congratulations, and may their success continue to expand for another 20 years.

Mar. 02 2012 10:11 PM
Jessica Irons

Superheroes. All of them.

Mar. 02 2012 01:33 PM

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