The theater steals from film for source material all the time, but now it's taking a cue from the exhibition side by going multiplex.
The 37 Arts complex, which "Hurlyburly" will christen when it begins previews on April 11, is the latest in Gotham's growing breed of sleek new structures housing many Off Broadway stages under one roof.
The others are: Theater Row (five theaters, opened Fall 2002), 59E59 (three, Feb. 2004) and Dodger Stages (five, Aug. 2004), which is, in fact, a converted Loews cineplex.
Stanley Durwood opened the first movie multiplex in Kansas City in the 1960s. The idea was copied and mass-produced by Cineplex Odeon founder Garth Drabinsky in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, some suburban movie houses have 30 screens, while the percentage of one-screen venues has gone from 90% in 1978 to 25% in 2005.
Legit multiplexes have similar economies of scale to their film counterparts. Most significantly, they're a destination, with a bigger buzz and more activities than a single, freestanding theater can provide.
On top of its three theaters, 37 Arts has three floors of dance studios and offices run by Mikhail Baryshnikov. The place has some quirks - lots of exposed concrete, an atrium with a seven-story wall of frosted glass and tweed seats scattered among the velvet ones - that the owners hope will give the place an air of gritty energy and spontaneity.
"There'll be things going on in this building from 9 a.m. to midnight, every day," says Alan Schuster, one of the principal owners, who hopes one show will breed auds for another.
As with cineplexes, auds coming to "Altar Boyz" at Dodger Stages might see the poster for "Modern Orthodox," which is playing down the hall.
"When you're coming in to see a show by an established group like the New Group, you'll see that there's a brand new company doing Shakespeare downstairs," says Theater Row general manager Erika Feldman, who runs the venue with producer Arielle Tepper.
The creators of 37 Arts - located on a not-exactly-hopping stretch of 37th Street near 10th Avenue, across from an auto repair shop - hope the venue will help stimulate the neighborhood, as Theater Row did for 42nd Street west of 9th Avenue.
The venues also save on construction costs. The Little Shubert, a freestanding 499-seat theater, cost $12 million, while Dodger Stages, which has two 499-seaters and three other theaters, cost $26 million (Schuster declined comment on 37 Arts costs).
Plus, judging from the verticality of 37 Arts, 59E59 and Theater Row, perhaps Gotham land is so expensive that if you're going to build one theater, it pays to build others on top of it.
As in film, legit complexes can consolidate the concession stands, which serve a steady stream of auds (as opposed to just one wave before a show and another during intermission). Dodger Stages' three bars and Theater Row's lounge are intended as hip hangout areas.
"The point is that you don't wait outside until 7:30 when the doors open," says Michael David, a partner in Dodger Stage Holding, which runs Dodger Stages. "You're in there, you're downstairs, you can have a bite to eat, you can have the drink of your choice."
As in film, legit multiplexes have only one box office and save on staff.
Dodger Stages has around three workers at a time, and Theater Row has two to four. For a single, freestanding 199-seat theater, "you might have one or two people in your box office, possibly three at curtain," says Feldman.
One reason film multiplexes proliferated is that they could buy Dolby sound systems in bulk. Legit multiplexes can also sometimes save on technology.
"We can borrow from one space and give to another, if a show going into a theater doesn't need as much soft goods as another," says Feldman of Theater Row, which offers a lighting package and has equipment available for rent.
The venues also seem well-suited for festivals.
Dodger Stages housed the National Alliance for Musical Theater Festival in the fall; 59E59 houses the Brits Off Broadway festival in the spring; and Theater Row housed the Tepper-produced Summer Play Festival last summer. Dodger Stages has even considered installing a kitchen to service caterers during events.
Granted, these places are different from one another.
Dodger Stages and 37 Arts have bigger theaters and are commercial enterprises. Theater Row (which cost $12 million) and 59E59 ($7 million) are nonprofit. 59E59 even offers a membership and advertises its shows collectively.
Film multiplexes have economies of scale that legit ones do not. They can run a single film in many theaters at once, fill the day with showtimes and use one projectionist for many screens.
37 Arts and Dodger Stages don't offer its renters lighting or sound equipment, and Off Broadway spaces rarely have fly systems, so technology savings aren't on par with those of film multiplexes.
37 Arts will have a different concession stand for each theater.
"I can't treat people who pay $75 a ticket the way you treat people who pay $8 a ticket," Schuster says.
But legit multiplexes have advantages that film ones do not.
In theater, unlike in film, the creatives, artists and technicians work at the multiplex, thereby creating networking opportunities.
"If we have a stage manager on one show and we have another coming in without a stage manager, we absolutely pass on resumes," says Feldman. "It happens with tech staff, it happens with house staff."
Putting many theaters into one building isn't new, of course. Older nonprofit complexes such as Gotham's Public Theater and London's National Theater also have multiple stages. But those are run by nonprofit companies that produce all of the shows in their theaters, as opposed to renting out their spaces to outside companies.
Some say these new complexes create a glut of Off Broadway theaters, and that there aren't enough shows to fill them. But others suggest they are simply taking the place of older, more traditional one-plexes that have recently closed or are skedded to close -- the Variety Arts, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks and Jane Street - a trend that also hit the film industry, rankling movie theater purists throughout the multiplex era.