“Theatre in New York is so much more than Broadway”

By: Denise van der Bij

When you think about theatre in New York, the first thing that comes to mind is Broadway: the most prestigious form of professional theatre in the world. But in the shadow of the big musicals lies a different type of theatre which is less famous and commercial, but more experimental and with that maybe even more intriguing: Off-Off-Broadway.

La MaMa is a theatre company that was founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, an Afro-American woman who introduced low-budget experimental productions to the East Village of Manhattan. In the first two decades of its existence the theatre was mostly known for famous performers like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro who started their career in the theatre while the actual core business of the theatre is creating a space for national and international theatregoers. Denise Greber is the Marketing Manager and Manager of International Relations at La MaMa. She has worked at the theatre for 20 years now. “New York is a multicultural city and, as a theatre, we feel strongly that we need to be accessible to the community. Over 25 percent of the artists who come here are from outside of the United States. Everyone must feel welcome here to experiment and find interesting new ways of creating art.”

Even though New York may be a city famous for its theatre, it is also one of the most expensive cities in the world and difficult to financially survive in. “We are lucky that we actually own multiple buildings in the city. Our founder Ellen Stewart understood the value of real-estate and that it is important to own instead of rent a theatre, because you have a leverage in less prosperous times.” With that, La MaMa is very rare. Research of The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation showed that only five percent of the Off-Off-Broadway theatres own a permanent place. The theatres that do not own a place and have to rent one, together pay over 11 million dollars per year. Renting is one-third of the total of over 31 million dollars spent on Off-Off-Broadway theatre production annually.

Different than in Europe, there is very little financial support from the government in theatre. The average amount of money that is spent on a single show is estimated on $18.000 dollars. Without financial support, the theatre is very dependent on donations. “But as we have grown over the years, risk-taking and diversity have become key cultural values. When you are not willing to take a risk, theatre is not the right place for you,” Greber emphasises.

While Broadway is about big theatre halls and selling musical tickets starting at $100 dollars, La MaMa wants to make all genres of theatre more accessible for the audience and more personal by performing in a small improved theatre with on average 100 seats. One of the most popular theatre forms at La MaMa’s is puppetry, which has been an integral part of the theatre’s programming since 1962. Each year there is a Puppet Festival where people from all over the world gather together in the Big Apple to push the boundaries of language and culture using puppetry. “It is not just a person with a puppet making funny jokes, where most people think about when they think of puppetry. In the festival we explore and discuss important, current issues,” Greber says.

Federico Restrepo is one of the artists who participated in last year’s Puppet festival. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but has lived in New York since 1985. He started performing in theatre as a professional ballet dancer in Colombia, but developed a love for puppetry in the United States. His style incorporates design and dance in puppetry. Nowadays he owns a theatre company called Loco 7 in where he mixes the soul of his South-American roots with his experiences of living in New York. “Off-Off-Broadway is the best place to develop in theatre for starting performers. It is a very special place where people are not afraid to break the standard and address sensitive topics. If you have been here, you never think about Broadway anymore,” Restrepo says.

Although Off-Off-Broadway may not be known by every New Yorker, it is a real concept in the world of theatre. “We are well-known in our neighbourhood in East Manhattan and we have a large group of connections all around the world. From Palestine to Australia and from the Netherlands to India. We keep in touch with them and we see that they spread the word as well. We are always searching for new audiences to introduce to theatre and we actually see that the interest in our kind of theatre is growing nowadays. Hopefully that will carry on in the future,” Denise Greber tells optimistically.