deserved more respect—we also have an Irish theater, a Jewish theater, a children’s theater,
a feminist theater, a Latinx theater, and a gay theater. We have Paul Robeson Theatre,
focused on the African American experience. We have an outdoor summer Shakespeare
theater and musical theaters. We have an avant-garde theater. The need to tell our stories, to
bond with other people with empathy and in a spirit of community is a universal part of the
human condition. To date, no Burmese, Somali, Dominican, or Yemini theater has emerged,
as might have happened back in the days of vaudeville, when every ethnic group would find
itself reflected on the American stage.
However, contemporary plays are more likely to require racially diverse casts than plays of
twenty years ago. On stage, most theaters are making efforts to reflect the diversity of our city
and of our nation. This, too, has changed since the days of Studio Arena, which would typically
feature one obligatory “black show” per season, often presented in February. Those days are
mercifully over, but the new diversity presents challenges.
There is greater demand for actors of color, and an acting pool that hasn’t yet caught up
with the demand. The Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, for
instance, finds that actors on whom they could formerly depend might not be available, as
they’re being offered work across a range of theaters, as well as in commercials and in films.
Theaters have proved willing, if begrudgingly, to juggle schedules for African American and
Latinx performers who double-book, with performance dates for one production overlapping
rehearsal dates for the next.
With so many theaters, audiences can cherry-pick their perfect season. The theater
mantra of a generation ago, which urged audiences to “Subscribe Now!” has been
supplanted by efforts to build modest subscription bases of devoted followers, then fill in
with as many single ticket sales as possible.
The number of theaters that can survive this is a simple matter of market forces. This is
show business; it is useful to remember that show business is competitive. Yes, our theaters
comprise a community but, often, this is a community of competitors.
In the old days, Studio Arena, feeling the threat of the professional theater scene growing
around them, would put a hold on every new title coming out of New York—not necessarily to
produce it, but to obstruct other theaters’ access. Studio was even known to have publishers
revoke rights from small theaters after contracts were signed. With Studio Arena gone, this
situation eased considerably, but theaters now find they are competing with each other.
Theaters serving similar audiences often find that they have gravitated toward the same
playwrights, and sometimes the same scripts. It is not unusual for a Buffalo theater to call a
publisher for rights to a script, only to be told “another Buffalo theater has a hold on it.” Then
the guessing game begins.
For audiences, this is, arguably, not a bad situation—there are certainly more fresh-from-New York scripts on our stages than ever before—but it does point to the need for further
change in our ever-evolving theater scene. Logically, the question periodically pops up as to
whether there might be too many theaters. In my view, until every member of the community
is being served, we do not yet have enough.
Classical Theatre changed ownership,
the company was lucky to negotiate
an attractive new lease for its Andrews
Theatre. Torn Space Theater made its
reputation on rediscovered spaces—the
Central Terminal, the Dnipro Ukrainian
Cultural Center, the grain elevators—
but has put major investment into
its permanent home in the Adam
Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle
on the struggling East Side.
To many people in the region,
Buffalo theater means Shea’s, where
you can see big name tours with high
production values. Hamilton anyone?
Shea’s has the largest audience, by far,
with thousands of subscribers for its
Broadway series, but it does not present
local productions. Today, at any given
moment, between twenty and thirty
theaters in Buffalo consider themselves,
to some degree, professional. Pay for
artists can be widely divergent, ranging
from full Equity contracts with benefits
to travel money—or less.
While we do seem to have a lot of
theaters serving the same white, upper
middle class audience—including the
devoted older white women that we
used to call “matinee ladies” or “the
blue-hair crowd” before we realized
they were the bread and butter and
Vintage program books and other ephemera from the collection of Anthony Chase document Buffalo’s
historic theater scene.