amBroadway | Off-Broadway’s comeback begins

‘Yonatan Gebeyehu, Sarah Rose Kearns, Nandita Shenoy, & Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy in rehearsals for Bedlam’s Persuasion, Photo by Ashley Garrett, 2021
Rehearsals for Bedlam’s Persuasion.
Photo by Ashley Garrett

A massive PR campaign is currently underway to promote the reopening of Broadway following the industrywide COVID-19 shutdown, which is intended to motivate New Yorkers, tri-state area dwellers, and (to the extent they have returned) tourists to buy tickets to Broadway shows.

But what about Off-Broadway? Where is the marketing blitz to celebrate the numerous smaller theaters, owned and operated by nonprofit and commercial companies, that are located throughout New York City and are also in the process of reopening? Is Off-Broadway too decentralized and diverse to benefit from a similar kind of campaign?

Technically speaking, the reopening of Off-Broadway has been going on for months – albeit at an extremely slow pace. In April, when performing arts venues were permitted to reopen their doors at just 33 percent capacity, “Blindness,” an experimental sound-and-light installation with no actors, became the first Off-Broadway show to open in New York since the shutdown. Tickets were sold in two-seat pods that were six feet apart from each other. Soon after, the long-running Off-Broadway mystery-thriller “Perfect Crime” became the first Off-Broadway play to reopen with professional actors.

More recently, the Public Theater brought back its time-honored, much-missed Shakespeare in the Park tradition with “Merry Wives,” a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by Jocelyn Bio. For the occasion, the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park was divided into full capacity sections for vaccinated theatergoers and physically-distanced sections for unvaccinated theatergoers. (For those who have yet to catch it, “Merry Wives” runs through Sept. 18). 

Other Off-Broadway productions over the summer included “Seven Deadly Sins,” a collection of one-acts staged in and around storefronts in the Meatpacking District; “Seize the King,” an adaptation of “Richard III” presented by Classical Theatre of Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park; and an experimental, one-woman adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama “An Enemy of the People” starring Ann Dowd (which shut down a month ahead of schedule). 

Many nonprofit Off-Broadway companies will begin new seasons in the coming weeks. Just a few Off-new Broadway productions in September include “What Happened? The Michaels Abroad” (the final work in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama series, produced by the Hunter Theatre Project); “Sanctuary City” (a drama about immigrants by Martyna Majok, produced by New York Theatre Workshop, which was in previews at the time of the shutdown); and “Persuasion” (a Jane Austen adaptation by Bedlam). “

Commercial Off-Broadway shows are also returning. “Stomp” and “Blue Man Group” are already running again, and reopening dates are set for “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Play That Goes Wrong,” and “Jersey Boys.” These long-running, well-known shows may have trouble attracting audiences until tourism picks up. On the other hand, nonprofit Off-Broadway companies will be able to rely on their existing subscriber bases and other local theatergoers. 

In one alarming development, Signature Theatre recently postponed its Off-Broadway production of Annie Baker’s new drama “Infinite Life,” which was slated to begin previews on Oct. 5 at the company’s multi-theater complex in midtown, “due to ongoing health and safety concerns.” However, Signature is still moving forward with its revival of Anna Deavere Smith’s docudrama “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which begins previews on Oct. 12.

It won’t be easy. But by producing worthwhile new shows (i.e. ones that are exciting, timely, risky, and entertaining) and using proper safety and health protocols, Off-Broadway institutions might not need to rely on a PR campaign. Dedicated theatergoers who live in and around New York, who have been starved of live performance since March of last year, will come. Eagerly.