Professional Theatre Structures in the United States (Part 1)

Every country has its own professional theatre structure and slightly different approaches to the presenting live theatre. Typically speaking, what constitutes professional is being paid for your time, talent, and expertise. Beyond that, though, there are a number of different tiers to what might be considered professional theatre in the U.S. From commercial theatre, to not-for-profit, Broadway, LORT, and beyond, each professional theatre structure operates under a slightly different set of rules and expectations. In this and subsequent posts, we will address many of the distinctions between these different levels of professional theatre and how they compare to one another.

Commercial vs. Not-for-Profit Theatre

One of the most important distinctions between the American theatre scene and that found in other countries is the fact that there is no National Theatre. Unlike many other countries, where theatre is funded to some degree by the state, American professional theatre is largely a private endeavor, separated into different divisions of commercial and not-for-profit theatres.

In the commercial theatre model, shows are produced by a group of investors brought together for the specific purpose of producing a play or musical. Commercial theatre runs are typically open-ended, and can run for decades on end, provided that ticket sales hold up. The producers often rent the performance space for the show, rather than owning it outright. Additionally, stagehands and support personnel are hired in for running the show. Most Broadway shows, touring productions, and legitimate theatre in Las Vegas operate as commercial theatre ventures. 

Not-for-profit theatre, on the other hand, operates quite differently. For starters, most not-for-profit theatres produce a series of plays in a season and present closed runs on productions. Unlike commercial theatre, most not-for-profits own and maintain their own theatre space (or sometimes multiple spaces). As such, they employ a staff of management, technical, and artistic personnel. Since funding may come from a variety of sources, they also do not depend on ticket sales to as great of a degree as commercial ventures.  

While it is true most Broadway shows are commercial ventures, there are some not-for-profits running and operating their own Broadway theatres, such as Lincoln Center Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Second Stage Theater. These companies operate a regular subscription series and have a different collective bargaining contract negotiation with all of the unions that dictates what rules they must follow, wages, and more. Many of these companies also own or lease Off-Broadway spaces, in addition to their Broadway homes.

New York City Theatre Structure

There is no doubt that New York City is the cultural center of new commercial theatre produced in the US. In many ways, New York theatre operates by a set of rules unique to itself and those who have not worked there may not be familiar with the structure and nomenclature. The following section covers many of the terms connected to the NYC theatre structure and breaks down the different categories of theatres found in NYC professional theatre. 

Broadway

It is a common misconception that professional theatre happening on the island of Manhattan is Broadway theatre. In truth, Broadway theatre is defined by some fairly rigid parameters based on geographic location and the number of seats in the auditorium. The geographic area, known as “the Broadway Box,” runs from 6th Avenue on the east (Ave. of the Americas) to 9th Avenue on the west, and from 40th Street on the south to 50thstreet on the north. In addition to this area, Lincoln Center Theatre is also included as a Broadway house. In order to qualify as a Broadway theatre, the venue must seat at least 500 people. Numbers of Broadway theatres have fluctuated over the years, due to new spaces being built, remodeled, or repurposed. Currently, there are 41 Broadway theatres, seventeen owned by the Shubert organization, six by Jujamcyn Theatres, and nine by the Nederlander Organization. Other Broadway theatres are either independently owned, owned and operated by not-for-profits, or leased from the City of New York by Disney Theatrical Group. 

Most of these theatres operating inside the Broadway Box are commercially managed, and operate as rental spaces using a “four walls and a curtain” contract. This means that a new production renting the theatre gets the theatre space, itself, and a grand drape included in the rental (though this is often never used). Beyond that, everything else is brought in as a rental – including rigging, scenery, lighting, projection equipment, etc. As these productions are open-ended, the space will be rented for as long as ticket sales remain good, or until other financial or logistical concerns necessitate closing. As mentioned before, commercial theatre is backed by a group of financial investors that funds the costs to get the show up and running. In an ideal world, the production will go on to recoup the funds laid out by the investors, at which point a production is considered profitable. Typically, the theatre owners are not involved with developing new productions, though they might be part of the group of investors for a given production. Most Broadway theatres are members of an organization called The Broadway League, a trade organization who generally promotes Broadway theatre and negotiates contracts with unions and guilds. In addition, the League helps administer the Tony Awards, since only productions mounted in Broadway theatres are eligible to receive the awards.

New York City is known for having a large number of trade unions. This is especially true in Broadway theatres. The union rules for Broadway houses are very different from other venues, even those located in New York City. While there are numerous unions and guilds involved in almost every level of producing a Broadway show, the primary unions involved with theatrical artists and technicians (IATSE, United Scenic Artists, Dramatists Guild of America, Actor’s Equity Association, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) all engage in the process of collective bargaining with the Broadway League to create the rules to which all Broadway productions must adhere. These affect a wide range of elements, such as wage scale, work hours, the number of and type of personnel required, royalties, and much more. Except in rare instances, all personnel working on Broadway are members of some type of theatrical union. 

Off-Broadway

Off-Broadway refers to theatres outside of the Broadway Box on the island of Manhattan, and having more than 100, but less that 499 seats. The Off-Broadway movement began in the 1950s as a response to the cost and commercialism associated with Broadway theatre at the time. The goal was to provide a more affordable venue intended to foster creativity and allow for more experimental productions than those found on Broadway, though in recent years this trend has not remained consistent. Off-Broadway theatres are a blend of commercial and not-for-profit management and are members of the Off-Broadway League, an organization founded in 1959 to “foster theatrical productions produced in Off-Broadway theatres, to assist in the voluntary exchange of information among its members, and to serve as the collective voice of its membership in pursuit of these goals.” Like the Broadway League, the Off-Broadway League negotiates agreements with theatrical unions and guilds, establishing the rules for working in an Off-Broadway house. A number of commercially successful Broadway productions like HairLittle Shop of HorrorsRent, Dear Evan HansonAvenue Q, and Hamilton started their lives Off-Broadway before transferring to Broadway. While not eligible for the Tony Awards, Off-Broadway productions are eligible for a wide range of awards, such as the Obie Awards, the Lucille Lortel Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the Drama League Award. There are roughly 40 Off-Broadway theatres operating in New York right now, though the numbers tend to fluctuate with more regularity than the Broadway houses. 

Off-Off Broadway

If Off-Broadway was a response of the commercialism in Broadway theatre, then Off-Off-Broadway took that notion one step farther as a complete rejection of commercialism and an embrace of experimentation and “art for art’s sake.”  At the time of its creation, many artists believed that Off-Broadway had lost its edge and had made itself into a “Broadway light” model, eliminating experimentation and, instead, simply focusing on productions that were considered unsuitable for commercial theatre. The first of these was The Living Theatre, to be followed by such groups as LaMaMa, Theatre Genesis, and New York Theatre Ensemble. As expected, these productions have much less stringent rule structures and are often non-union structure. If a union designer were to work on these productions, the contract is a “project only” agreement, which guarantees that the producers will pay into their pension and welfare, but offers no collectively bargained rights or protections.

Check back soon for upcoming posts covering regional theatre structures, touring, and professional theatre in academic environments!

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