Theater Festivals Throw Spotlight on New Talent

Over the past two decades, theater festivals have become increasingly widespread in New York City’s theater landscape, seemingly an industry norm for launching new works and talent. From the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), to The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) to the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT)’s Festival of New Musicals, among others, new artists have a variety of vehicles to stage their works — an opportunity that otherwise might be impossible given the high cost of producing theater readings and workshops.

“Festivals have come to play a very important role for talent discovery,” says Isaac Robert Hurwitz,  director and executive producer of NYMF. “Because they are affordable and accessible, they provide opportunities for new blood to get seen, to really get up on its feet, and be fully realized.”

The original Off-Broadway cast of "Altar Boyz" which premiered at New World Stages in 2005 after a 2004 debut at NYMF. Pictured (l-r): Scott Porter, David Josefsberg, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard and Ryan Duncan. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Actor Ryan Duncan was part of the original cast of “Altar Boyz,” the long-running Off-Broadway musical that premiered at NYMF in 2004, before moving to New World Stages the following year. “Festivals like the Fringe, NYMF and NAMT are great,” he said, “even if the show runs a short time — just to have the piece put up in front of an audience for potential backers and investors.”

Duncan is currently producing a play that will have five performances in this year’s Fringe Festival, “Rated M For Mature,” centered on a teen tackling issues like bullying and gaming. “Often, it takes a long time to get potential supporters to read a new script, so these festivals do everything for them, basically.”

Even with the help of festivals, producing theater isn’t cheap. According to NYMF, production costs can range from $15,000 to $75,000, depending on the show. “The festivals, though fairly costly these days, are cheaper than self-producing in a commercial venue,” says Duncan.

According to Tim Cusack of Theatre Askew, a NYC-based theater company whose productions focus on redefining LGBT theater, weekly rental at the 72-seat New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street costs $3,000 through its curated rental program, and weekly rental at the 98-seat Hudson Guild Theater in Chelsea is $2,500. These rates include a lighting package, sound system and backstage facilities. Cusack points out that the $500, 26-seat difference can be a factor in a company’s ability to recoup money for a show (under Actor’s Equity Association’s Showcase Code, which most Off-Off Broadway companies produce under, a producer can only charge $18 a ticket).

Both NYMF and the Fringe Festival explicitly state on their application pages that they are not producing the applicants’ shows, merely presenting/co-producing them. As such, productions must raise their own funds (plus a $650 participation fee for the Fringe; NYMF shows accepted under the Next Link Project pay a $500 participation fee) and promote their shows independently; however, the festival handles venue arrangements (covered in part by the participation fees), general festival publicity and ticketing. For every $15 advance ticket sold at the Fringe Festival, participants receive $8.75, and for every $18 ticket purchased at the door, participants receive $10.70. NYMF also splits box office proceeds with participants. Participants are also required to agree to contribute 2 percent of their gross revenues above $20,000 derived from future productions of the show for a period after the close of the festival — seven years for the Fringe and 10 years for NYMF.

Still, the the benefits from being associated with festivals are often enough incentive for aspiring producers. In addition to venue arrangements, some festival perks include (for NYMF): access to discounted rehearsal space and costumes, a festival industry liaison who will help promote the show to producers and companies in NYC and regionally, and help with fundraising and industry networking.

In this 2011 interview by Leonard Jacobs of  The Clyde Fitch Report, Elena K. Holy, producing artistic director of The New York International Fringe Festival, discusses the process of choosing venues for Fringe shows in downtown Manhattan. Courtesy of FringeNYC.

Perhaps the most popular of the festivals, NYMF has grown steadily since it began in 2004, and prides itself on giving opportunities to musicals of all kinds. “In programming a festival, I really try to represent the diversity of voices that are out there and the breadth of styles and subject matter,” says Hurwitz. “Really what we’re about is expanding the umbrella of opportunity and hope that something will catch fire. We look for strong, bold and daring voices.”

Taking a bold move themselves, this year NYMF moved to the summer (July 9-29) from its usual early fall time slot, in an effort to stand out from a season of Broadway openings and perhaps catch some of the tourists here during the summer rush. It also centralized its venues between 42nd and 46th Streets and created The NYMF Hub near Port Authority as an additional venue and ticket booth.

“There was a lot of concern that moving to the summer we would lose the regular theatergoers,” says Hurwitz. “Our evidence has been that the ticket sales as a whole have gone up this year. I do think that we’re getting a lot more tourists and same-day ticket buyers — people who want to see a musical — and we’re perhaps more prominent than we were in the fall to that casual theatergoer. The more we can engage people in coming to see new work and seeing the development of new products as a valuable part of the cultural experience of being in the city, the better it is for the future of the art form.”

The New York International Fringe Festival, running from August 10-26, celebrates its 16th anniversary this year and stands out as the largest multi-arts festival in North America, with more than 200 international companies performing in more than 20 venues. Unlike NYMF, which focuses solely on musicals, the FringeNYC presents various genres, including sketch, improv and multimedia.

While tourists usually gravitate to larger, established productions, stars of stage and screen can also be found in these festivals (Cheyenne Jackson, who also participated in the NYMF production of “Altar Boyz,” is among them). Mindy Kaling of “The Office” and FOX’s upcoming “The Mindy Project” was discovered by writer-producer Greg Daniels via her two-woman show, “Matt & Ben” which debuted Off-Broadway in 2003 after a successful run at the 2002 FringeNYC festival. Recent Broadway hit “Next to Normal” got its start at the NYMF in 2005, then under the title “Feeling Electric” (“It was ambitious — I had no idea of what to make of it or what an audience would make of it, but there were clearly talented writers behind the project and it was a project unlike anything else I had seen,” says Hurwitz).

Rock musical "Next to Normal" appeared at NYMF in 2005 under the title "Feeling Electric." The show moved to Off-Broadway in 2008 and then Broadway in 2009, receiving 11 Tony nominations and winning three Tonys. It went on to tour the U.S. and had productions around the world, including in Norway, Peru, Israel, and the Philippines. Pictured (l-r): Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But what about those productions who don’t make it past the festival level? Five out of 31 new musicals go on to commercial Off-Broadway productions before the start of the next festival season, according to NYMF.

For some shows, opportunities lost in NYC equal opportunities gained on the road or abroad. NYMF productions alone have gone on to play across the country in 44 states and internationally in 16 countries. In 2009, NYMF established a partnership with South Korea’s Daegu International Musical Festival, in an effort to exchange the best offerings of New York and Korea’s theater scenes. “I don’t necessarily see my role as being the person who’s curating what tomorrow’s Broadway show is going to be, so much as providing the platform and the opportunity to allow these projects and these artists to hone their skills and to develop into what may ultimately become a commercial product,” says Hurwitz. A commercial product with a far greater reach than producers may have initially even thought possible.


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