November 13, 2010

Filmmaker and Playwright's Documentary Is Center of Project to Bring Awareness to Often Overlooked Theater Scene.

Each year, an estimated 350 Off-Off Broadway theater companies spend more than $30 million producing some 1,700 shows. Yet, when Frank Kuzler stopped to ask people on the streets of Lower Manhattan last weekend whether they had even heard of Off-Off Broadway, few had any clue.

Krisanne Johnson for The Wall Street Journal Frank Kuzler, right with camera, and his wife, Jennifer, center, interviewing random people on the street about Off-Off Broadway for the Awareness Project. "Go to Broadway, turn left twice," offered Nick Swan, a 22-year-old engineering student from Scotland planning to see "The Lion King" that night. "I think of students who are still in school and learning to act. They have to practice to get to Broadway," said Brielle Klein, 32, a kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn.

Mr. Kuzler, a 42-year-old playwright, independent filmmaker and former managing director of Off-Off Broadway's Boomerang Theatre Company, was filming their responses with a skeletal crew— soundwoman, cameraman, his wife and their 10-month-old baby, whose stroller sometimes carried equipment—for what he calls the Awareness Project. On Saturday, he'll launch the project online under the banner of his year-old nonprofit, Decades Out, to raise the profile of this sprawling, below-the-radar theater scene.

The project will present man-on-the-street clips alongside excerpts from interviews Mr. Kuzler is conducting for a larger, multi-part documentary tracing the movement that spawned the careers of actors such as Sam Shepard and Al Pacino, as well as shows like "Dreamgirls" and "Godspell." He hopes the film, "Burning to Communicate," will illuminate the creative drive and turbulent social forces that gave rise to the likes of Judith Malina's radical works at the Living Theatre in the 1940s and Ellen Stewart's Café LaMaMa, which skirted building laws 49 years ago by transforming a Lower East Side basement into a coffee shop where actors earned money not from performing, but by selling sassafras tea. With 30 hours of footage in the can, Mr. Kuzler estimates he's halfway done filming.

"These were places where voices not normally heard were given a venue to be heard," said Mr. Kuzler, a Brooklyn transplant from Long Island who dove into theater a decade ago when he enrolled in a screenwriting seminar at the Greenwich Village acting school HB Studio. He then got involved with the New York International Fringe Festival, where he wrote his first show, a 17-minute multimedia production called "An Obscure Week During the Coming of Age of Tom Noise."

"I loved it," Mr. Kuzler said of Off-Off Broadway. "It's a place where the artist is given the trust to be able to create. It's a place of risk-taking." Believing the scene was underappreciated, he decided three years ago to focus his camera on it. "It's become an industry with its own marketplace where people dedicate their careers to it," he said. "But to the general public it's almost nonexistent."

The term "Off-Off Broadway" was coined by a Village Voice theater editor in 1960 when the paper started doing listings for downtown avant-garde performance spaces like Caffe Cino, whose eight-foot stage broke ground for gay and experimental theater. By the late '60s, the term had come to signify venues with less than 100 seats, as per the Actors' Equity Showcase Code. The union set such guidelines as capping the number of performances (it's now 16 or 24, depending on the contract) and ticket prices ($18 or $25). Mr. Kuzler believes these rules make it impossible for Off-Off Broadway productions to make money, which in turn keeps them from being recognized as legitimate.

Now, advocacy groups including the League of Independent Theater are pushing to change the restrictions to something more akin to Los Angeles's 99-Seat Theater rule, which allows for unlimited runs with a tiered system for actors' salaries and ticket prices. Many are also trying to shift the nomenclature from "Off-Off Broadway" to "independent theater" to connote "artistic-driven work" in the spirit of indie music or film rather than "the third rung on a ladder you're not even trying to climb," said John Clancy, LIT's executive director and the founding artistic director of the Fringe Festival.

Of course, there are benefits to moving to bigger and glossier theaters. "One of the most exciting things about getting out of Off-Off Broadway is you don't have to carry your own props to work," Leigh Silverman, who has directed Off-Off Broadway and Broadway shows and is now directing Lisa Kron's "In the Wake" at the Public Theater. But many return to the small stage "to be inspired," she said.

Those toiling away and experimenting in tiny black box theaters aren't necessarily looking to fill "monster houses," Mr. Kuzler noted. They do, however, have practical business concerns, and he hopes his project can help them fill more seats—a difficult role considering many actors, including his wife, can't even get agents to watch them perform Off-Off Broadway. He is undeterred: "If there's more notice of it, people will say, 'I'm in the mood for one of these shows I can pay $20 to see.' "

Read on the Wall Street Journal website...