The Price of New York Theater

Not only is New York the most expensive city in the United States, but it's getting more expensive to live here. The cost of living in the Big Apple rose a whopping 4.5% from October 2004 to October 2005, 1.6% higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But one statistic that the Labor Department doesn't calculate is the rising cost of producing theater in New York.

So what's causing theater to become so expensive? Is it the gentrification? Competition with big-name, big-budget Broadway musicals? Perhaps it's an abundance of theaters, which means shows draw smaller audiences and ticket prices must go up to cover production costs.

It could be any of those reasons, all of them, or none of them. But regardless of the cause, anyone who has been involved in an Off-Off Broadway production will tell you that the expenses involved in getting a show up and running are becoming nearly prohibitive.

Recently, TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) II theater company performed Charles Busch's The Lady in Question. Busch is an all-purpose entertainer who has earned fame for his acting on the HBO series Oz, a cult following for the movie version of his play Psycho Beach Party, and a Tony nomination for his play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

Impressive, then, that an Off-Off Broadway theater company-even one as prominent at TOSOS II-could stage a reading of a current Broadway star's play. What's more impressive is that this reading served merely as a fund-raiser for TOSOS II's next production, Dog Opera by Connie Congdon.

Two plays for the price of one? To find out how TOSOS II had managed to pull off this seemingly impossible feat, I met with company members Christopher Borg (director), Jason Bowcutt (director), Mark Finley (artistic director), and Doric Wilson (founder and general director) to discuss how their recent production came about. Christopher, Jason, how did you two get involved in TOSOS II?

Jason Bowcutt (JB): We grew up in Utah, in Salt Lake City. We both grew up Mormon. He brought me out of the closet.

Christopher Borg (CB): We were best friends.

JB: We were both into theater. We were both in acting.

CB: We were in a Mormon musical together…

JB: [Laughs.]

CB: ...called Saturday's Warrior.

JB: Saturday's Warrior!

CB: All about keeping the family together from a lot of liberals around, filling your head with garbage!

JB: So we, I got this book of Charles Busch's plays. I gave the book to him. He, we, totally understood...

CB: Connected to the material.

JB: Loved the material!

CB: Thought he was the funniest playwright we'd ever read. At the time we were interested in Charles Ludlum, and that interest got us into the library and led [Jason] to Charles Busch, and we read all the plays we could get our hands on. So the very first play I ever directed was <i>Psycho Beach Party</i>, and that was the first Charles Busch play ever produced in the state of Utah.

JB: And so we've been dying to do this play for a long, long time. Recently, we've become familiar with Charles and he's been very, very sweet to us.

How did you become familiar with him?

CB: Jason is the executive director of the New York IT Awards, the Innovative Theater Awards.

JB: He was the host last season.

CB: Last summer, or spring, we went to the Duplex [Theater] to see [Charles] talk before a screening of [his film] Die Mommie Die!, and Jason said, "Oh, my gosh: Charles, you should be the host of the first IT Awards ceremony." And so we spoke to him, and I kind of weaseled my way into the job of being his assistant for the evening, and it was like a dream come true.

JB: Congdon was an awards presenter, and TOSOS II decided they wanted to do her play Dog Opera with Christopher and [TOSOS II actor] Shay [Gines] in it. So we decided a way to raise funds for that was to put on this reading of The Lady in Question, which is a hard play to actually do. It would cost a lot of money.

CB: We could not afford to produce... it's got a big set and a large cast.

JB: A large cast.

CB: And we approached Charles with the idea, and it's a play that he's kept close to himself because I think he wants to do it again. But he very sweetly said, "Of course you guys can do it for this purpose."

Did you think about money when planning for this show?

Mark Finley (MF):It wasn't, "Well, we can't do this because we don't have the money," because we never have any money.

So how did you come up with the idea to use a production to fund a production?

JB: I don't know if anyone else has done it, but it seemed like a smart idea. I mean, we love both plays.

CB: It's a fund-raiser, and you think about, "How do theater companies do fund-raisers?" Sometimes they have cabarets, sometimes they have auctions or things like that. But I've wanted to do one of Charles's plays, and I don't know when I'll ever get a chance to. And it was like a symbiotic thing. One was our devotion to Charles, his work, and our love of his plays, and a need to make money for the theater company.

All of the actors involved are members of TOSOS. And so it was, I mean, in a way it's kind of wonderful. Charles is, to me, one of the important gay playwrights in New York. And in a way, it's like a gift. He's giving the gift of his celebrity and the fame of his play to support the gay Off-Off Broadway theater company of New York City. And I really think that that's where his heart is, too.

Do you get private donations? Do you write grants? Or is it all kind of thrown together?

MF: It's pretty much box office and personal money. You know, people lending us money.

CB: But it's a know what? The focus is on the work, it's not on commercialism. And so it means that you have to be creative about finding a way to pay the bills and to pay the rent of the theater, which is getting higher and higher in New York, and it's almost squeezing the small theaters out. But they will survive!

So do you see this being a problem that is going to somehow quell the Off-Off Broadway theater community?

Doric Wilson (DW): Well, it's up to [everybody] to deal with it. Our way of dealing with it is to hope that we can continue to go on doing things [at the club Downstairs at the Monster]. We don't pay rent.

So you rent this place out per performance?

DW: No. We don't pay rent. They get the bar. We get the space. That's the point. When I first did TOSOS originally, we did things at the Spike, which was a bar I helped open. No overhead, no electric bill. No rent whatsoever. Yeah, you have to deal with the ice machine dropping ice and the piano upstairs.

But bottom line, the black boxes were when in the 80's and 90's Off-Off Broadway really became showcases. And what's funny about that is, the minute they became showcases, the agents stopped coming. But in the old days of Off-Off Broadway, agents just came. I didn't have a play of mine in the early days of [legendary cafe/performance space] the Chino or later at TOSOS. Actually, when we did TOSOS, we opened up with a musical revue called Lovers, and there was a very determined young actor who got every agent in New York down to see Lovers, and everybody in the cast got an agent except for him [laughs].

You know, the bottom line is, to get a cast like you saw tonight willing to work for free means there's no work in the city. They shouldn't be available. They really should not be available. And they're going to be available because there is no work left in this city.

What other ways do you guys use to get the funds necessary?

CB: So far, it's been, you know, looking for donations and relying on the generosity of your audience.

JB: And focusing on doing the work and making sure the work is of a quality.… Honestly, sometimes it's like paycheck to paycheck. Show to show. We don't have a big budget.

CB: TOSOS is a noncommercial, not-for-profit organization. It's completely a volunteer effort on everyone's part. And so there isn't really a mechanism in place to draw money from. I don't think there's a big, fat, rich board sitting around pouring money into our mouths.

JB: Big, fat, rich, evil board.

CB: Boards are great!

JB: Boards are great, Chris!

Doric, you have had your plays produced in New York since the inception of Off-Off Broadway. Has producing changed since then?

DW: Yes, yes, yes. Because now you have the black boxes that cost five times more than you could possibly make if you sold out for the week. So that's garbage. And we can't go on doing that. We've had, knock on wood, since TOSOS first opened, we've not had a bad show. And we've not had an unsuccessful show. We've had good audiences for all of them. Lost money on all of them because of the economics.

JB: I don't think that the people in TOSOS are thinking, "In five years, I'll be on Broadway." They're thinking, "I want to continue doing theater I love. I want to continue working on plays that have affected me, that have had effect on the community, the gay community.

MF: We started TOSOS because we wanted to bring out a lot of the seminal gay plays that have fallen out of the canon-that, because they exist, you get, you know, plays that happen now. But you're not going to see a lot of Robert Patrick's work on Broadway. It's not going to happen. And it's such great stuff, and I feel lucky that we can do it.

Any final thoughts on producing Off-Off Broadway?

DW: No, except get out and [expletive] do it.

Note: Dog Opera will open at a date yet to be determined. For more information, go to the TOSOS II website.

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