theater how-TO



New York is replete with theater – Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, festival, institutional, subscription, university, HD, so many choices. The real question is: what kind of theater-goer are you? The plan-ahead and buy subscriptions kind? The “wait until you read reviews and then buy Broadway tickets” kind?  Like so many, maybe you’re the “by the time I saw the review, the show was gone” kind, the obsessive “put your name in the lottery for Hamilton only” kind, the kind who asks, “my Tuesday is free, what can I get into?”

If you are up for anything, go to the Theatre Development Fund booth in McDuffy Square (a triangular park at 47th St. and Broadway). Anyone can use cash or credit card to purchase same-day low-price tickets there to almost every Broadway and Off-Broadway show – TDF has offered this service for over 40 years to replace the old practice of lines forming at individual box offices in the already crowded Times Square streets and alleys. It has the added advantage to you (and service to the theaters) of introducing potential ticket buyers to Off-Broadway shows that may not have been on their wish lists. The available shows, with prices and curtain times, are listed on huge electronic billboards nearby and there are always people around to give you informal tips or flyers about the shows.  If you can’t get tickets to the show you wanted, see something else. 

There are additional TDF booths at South Street Seaport, Downtown Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center, and Lincoln Center’s Rubenstein Atrium, but there is more of a vibe at the Times Square booth with its red slanted roof. TDF is a nonprofit that also develops services for the performing arts and general audience communities, so your sale goes to a very good cause. 

If you are an obsessive fan of a single show – maybe it used to be Rent but now it’s Hamilton – you undoubtedly know more than I do about getting in through the lottery and standing room line. 

If you want to keep abreast of theater for occasional or obsessive ticket purchases and you like to receive information online (you are, after all, reading a zine), you can subscribe to newsletters like Playbill ClubBroadway Black, and TheaterMania. As well as providing announcements and special offers, they are informative and entertaining, especially TheaterMania’s interactive Friday edition. 

Don’t get distracted by the distinctions between Broadway and Off-Broadway, which are partially geographic and partially financial, based on the number of seats in the theaters.  What we call “Broadway” are the large theaters, which have been in the Times Square neighborhood since the turn of the last century.  They function with specific contracts from the unions and guilds and are eligible for the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards. What we call “Off-Broadway” are mid-sized or small theaters that can be anywhere in the city, including Times Square, but are associated with Greenwich Village, NoHo, SoHo, and, more recently, Fort Greene. The Off-Broadway movement, which started in the 1950s, continues to energize the theater world throughout New York. The most important distinction to keep in mind is that Broadway shows generally have open ended runs, while Off-Broadway shows have pre-determined shorter runs, usually previews plus six weeks.

Spanning the Broadway and Off-Broadway scenes are the institutional and subscription theater companies, which often manage a range of performance spaces. Subscription theaters offer tickets to a season’s worth of their productions, like opera companies. The challenge is that they offer subscription packages in the Spring for the next season and may not have finalized their offerings.  The subscription theaters tend to develop personalities and present a coherent pattern for their seasons, so you can tell them apart.  Signature, for example, may focus on a single playwright, while Roundabout, New York’s largest non-profit theater, will offer new plays, revivals of classics, and re-imagined productions of musicals.  The New Victory presents an international array of creative shows tailored for family audiences. Most allow subscribers some flexibility with dates and ticket exchanges, but you will still be making commitments of money and time as much as a year in advance. 

The institutions that present or co-produce international companies, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and St. Ann’s Warehouse, are also subscription-based.  New York’s summertime Harlem Arts Festival, Fringe Festival, and Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) let you purchase passes or packages of tickets and privileges for their extremely short run productions. 

Membership theater companies generally also offer subscriptions but require an additional contribution for support. If you find a theater that fits your interests (as well as location and price scale), becoming a member makes sense. As well as packages of tickets, you get options for additional productions and events, ranging from social to educational. The Public Theater, for example, presents a wide range of lectures and seminars on political issues as well as its own Under the Radar festival of experimental performance. Generally, the package also includes a t-shirt. The Spanish-language companies (Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and Repertorio Espanol) and many of the established African American theater companies offer memberships. Institutional and membership companies are generally non-profits and maintain educational staffs that create programs for students, hoping to develop new generations of theater-goers.  

Getting back to you and your preferences: If you are a spontaneous kind of person, head to a TDF booth and pick up a ticket.  If you want to plan ahead, look at the listings in the New York Times (Friday), Village Voice (Wednesday), The New YorkerTime Out, or your one of the online sources and see which subscription theater has the range that interests you. Then, check out the website, subscribe to the e-newsletter, and take a plunge on a subscription! Do your part to help keep too much theater alive and well in New York.