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Drawing a crowd: Not like it used to be in theater

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It’s not a good sign when there are more people on stage than in the audience. Our dedicated reviewer, Arlene McKanic, found that to be the case on a recent assignment at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City. Sometimes, no matter what you do to publicize your show, it just isn’t good enough.

A couple of years ago, I wrote three consecutive columns, and an occasional one before and since, on what it takes to attract an audience. And — as you savvy readers know — there’s no single or easy answer. Many local companies believe that you have to do something that people will recognize: a play or musical that has stood the test of time, an old friend that you want to visit again. A few others — very few actually — will try something out of the ordinary, in the hope of bringing in the more adventurous theatergoers, those who want to meet someone new.

The Phoenix Players, performing at the Poppenhusen Institute in College Point, is one of the latter. Their latest offering is “Circle Mirror Transformation”, a recent Obie Award Winner for Best New American Play. If you hurry, you may still be able to get a ticket for the final performances Thursday through Saturday nights. Beari Productions, based in Middle Village, has been making the effort to distinguish itself from other community theaters by some ambitious choices. They recently concluded a production of “Judgment at Nuremberg” at two different locations. A nod to The Gingerbread Players, who have been taking on the ageless William Shakespeare — whomever he was — at the Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Forest Hills. Its new construction makes it handicapped-accessible.

You would think that, from a population of millions within 30-45 minutes of most of our local theaters, all of the available tickets would be quickly sold. After all, the price is right and the quality is good. Truth be told, however, live theater in our New York City area has to compete with so many other forms of entertainment — not the least of it television — that even filling 100 seats is a struggle.

A few years ago, The Outrageous Fortune Company produced “The Shape of Things” by Neil LaBute. We had our biggest ever turnout of actors at auditions, for just four roles. There was a movie version of the play and it appealed to a younger audience than average. But when it came to ticket sales, it was the worst attended of our 50 productions.

If you get into Manhattan from time to time, as I do, you’ll find that most of the Broadway and Off Broadway shows are available at a discount (still pricey) at the TKTS location in Duffy Square. Very few shows sell out, even though the pros have the money to heavily publicize their product, and often star celebrity names to attract the public. A new play I recently saw, “Ch’inglish”, by David Henry Hwang, the author of “M. Butterfly” and “Yellow Face,” is one you shouldn’t miss — it’s lots of fun and has a lot to say.

Queens College is underway with its 36th anniversary season of Evening Readings held in its Music Building on occasional Tuesdays at 7 p.m., usually featuring literary types who read from their work and then submit to an interview. However, two major theater guys are next up — on Nov. 15, Edward Albee, and on Dec. 6, Stephen Sondheim will have a conversation with former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. (More info at www.qcreadings.org, or call 718-997-4646.)

For those of you with a number fetish, tomorrow is 11/11/11, although a Leap Year child like myself knows that the calendar is not to be taken seriously. Check back with me next February when I may tell you more about it. But what really counts tomorrow is Veterans Day. Give that some serious thought, and wonder when America will end all these foreign wars. Peace and love to you all.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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