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The Play’s The Thing: The Hellman Poll finds high demand for Queens theater

What do the American people want? If you listen to our political leaders and our media pundits talking about health care or any other controversial issue, they’re absolutely sure about what we want and what we don’t want. And how do they know? The polls tell them so! Never mind who’s taking the poll, how a question is worded or who gets asked – our leaders claim to know exactly what the American people want. All I know is that nobody has asked me.

Well, I decided to take my own poll here in Queens, and the question was: What do our residents, officially 2.2 million at the last census, want from local theater? It turns out that most people could care less — they got their TV and that’s all they need for entertainment. If they are teenagers or young adults, they got their music and their movies, preferably with lots of action featuring vampires, zombies, aliens and superheroes.

However, I did find a substantial number of people who actually like to go to the theater. Maybe not all the time, like Millie and Richard Gudonsky — if you missed my profile of this ubiquitous couple, check out our archives at www.YourNabe.com — but every once in a while. Many of those paying customers prefer musicals, light comedies and mysteries, especially if the title is familiar to them. Dramas, not so much, and if they never heard of the play, it’s unlikely that they’ll show up. But if they know somebody in the play, the chances are good that they’ll buy a ticket. And if it’s one of their children or some other relative, count on it.

My polling shows that the Queens’ theater public wants an affordable price and a place to park. They’re in luck on both counts. You can see a local show for well under $20, sometimes even under $10 — forget those 3-D movie tickets — and most venues have a nearby spot for your car. And if you’re limited to public transportation, there’s usually a subway or bus within a block or two.

But what the people in Queens really want, so my survey shows, is a year-round theater center, where they could see plays and musicals, both classic and contemporary, children’s theater, one-act plays, staged readings and original works, where every week of the year there would be something going on. Amazingly enough in a borough the size of Queens, there’s nothing that comes close. Sure, Manhattan isn’t far away — and you shouldn’t miss some of the shows you can find there — but what about something closer to home, a lot less expensive and maybe just as good?

Brooklyn has a couple of companies that I’ve mentioned before, The Heights Players in Brooklyn Heights and The Gallery Players in Park Slope, which produce lots of theater throughout the year. Queens also has some ambitious groups — the Astoria Performing Arts Center, the Thalia Spanish Theater and Sofia Landon Geier’s new Unity Stage Company come to mind — but most of the locals are content with (or limited to) just two or three shows a year for two or three weekends each, usually recycling plays and musicals with lots of name recognition.

In all of Queens the only performing arts center, with the exception of a couple associated with colleges, is Queens Theatre in the Park, but its theater series is just one part of what it offers to the public.

The results of my extensive poll — like other polling entities, my methods are a closely guarded secret — suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a substantial audience eager to attend a great variety of theater in Queens, especially at one place where something different is happening all the time. If you build it, they will come.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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