In 2008, Road Less Traveled Productions co-founder Scott Behrend was the last person to direct a full-scale production at the foundering Studio Arena Theatre.
And in February, when his company’s production of Annie Baker’s “The Circle Mirror Transformation” opens on that same stage, he’ll become the first person to direct a full show under the auspices of the newly founded 710 Main Theatre.
The collaboration, announced this week by Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Road Less Traveled and 710 Main Theatre, will mark the beginning of a new era for the storied, 600-seat space in the heart of Buffalo’s Theater District.
Studio Arena, Buffalo’s regional theater of old, produced and presented a subscription series of plays every year. The 710 Main Theatre, by contrast, will serve strictly as a presenting house for productions by other theater companies. Those shows, the new theater’s leaders have said, will include Shea’s-sponsored productions like recent appearances by John Lithgow and Seth Rudetsky, local productions like Road Less Traveled’s upcoming project, and plays and musicals produced by regional theaters and repertory companies in other cities.
Though the newly rechristened theater was essentially shepherded into existence by Shea’s President and CEO Anthony Conte, it exists as a separate nonprofit organization with a separate board, which has contracted with Shea’s to manage the building and to help program and promote individual shows.
“We feel that one of the most important things we can do for the theater community is to provide an opportunity for the local theater companies – the ones that are downtown, the ones that are not downtown – to perform downtown,” Conte said. “For theaters like Scott’s, he’s only half a block away, but he’s limited in size. Here, he has obviously much more potential to generate earned revenue.”
Conte is in discussions with three other local companies about potential collaborations. Ross Eckert, a former Studio Arena subscriber who is now president of the board of directors at 710 Main, said the theater is already talking with companies in other cities about possible programming.
“We’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to attract presenters from New York City, it could be Chicago, it could be Erie, it could be the Geva Theatre in Rochester,” Eckert said. “The whole idea is to have a variety of dramatic presentations and collaborations with other theaters who are still in the producing business.”
In Buffalo, where there are some two dozen theaters in the business of producing shows for 50 or 100 people at a time, the stage of 710 Main holds the promise of more attention, more audience exposure and – perhaps most important– the revenue to produce more and better theater.
But the new model for the former Studio Arena stage has also raised eyebrows in a highly segmented theater community that has traditionally been hostile to large-scale collaborations. Beyond theater’s natural competitive spirit, that hostility also comes out of a fear that the uncommon diversity of Buffalo’s theater community – a kind of theatrical Galapagos – might suffer.
“If I was able to do one show a year here and just sell it for four weeks, four or five shows a weekend, and sell 85 percent of the tickets, it would subsidize the entire rest of my other productions,” said Behrend, whose theater in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center across Main Street holds 90 seats. “Unfortunately, I think there are some other people who have looked at this and said, ‘Well, you’re just going to be stealing people away from the other theaters.’ ”
Conte tried to dismiss those fears.
“We’re not suggesting that the theater companies take undue risk,” he said. “What we’re suggesting is that they take a show that they have planned for the season and a show that they think can be a good seller, where they probably would fill the theater almost every night, and look at doing a show in a venue where they could sell more seats.” As the new theater builds its own subscriber base, Conte added, local productions will have the potential to reach broader audiences than they could individually.
Shea’s will put the full force of its marketing clout behind shows slated for the 710 Main Stage. The theater, which is the envy of touring Broadway producers who covet its loyal subscriber base, will market 710 Main shows to its 12,863 subscribers.
“To sell 600 seats, you have to have considerable weight behind that, more than just what Road Less Traveled would be able to bring to that table … I don’t think either one of us is thinking that we’re gonna sell 600 tickets a night,” Behrend said. “It would be awesome if that happened. But I also think we have to let everyone know that there’s live theater happening here again, and sort of build people’s trust again, because clearly the community trust was certainly hurt when Studio Arena folded.”
The upcoming production of “The Circle Mirror Transformation” will be the first local presentation of a play by Annie Baker, the inventive writer who stormed into the off-Broadway world in 2008 and who Behrend calls “probably the hottest female playwright in American theater right now.”
The 90-minute one-act, which won an Obie Award for best new American play and performance in 2009 for its off-Broadway production at Playwright’s Horizons, has been widely produced at regional theaters across the United States. It takes place in a dance studio, where a group of acting students meets for the first time and gradually gets to know one another through a series of funny and revealing exercises. Think of it as a sort of actorly version of “The Breakfast Club.”
The production also marks a watershed moment for Road Less Traveled Productions, which was founded in 2002 by Behrend and local playwright Jon Elston and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. This year, the company saw Buffalo playwright Ibn Shbazz’s “Insidious,” which premiered at Road Less Traveled last year, produced by The Black Rep in St. Louis. In 2008, it also premiered Neil Wechsler’s “Grenadine,” which Edward Albee selected as the winner of that year’s 2008 Yale Drama Series Award and will direct at the Flea Theatre in New York City next fall, according to Wechsler.
This year, the theater officially established its first ensemble of actors, designers, playwrights and directors, following the footsteps of ensemble-based companies like Steppenwolf in Chicago and LABrynth Theatre in New York. It was accepted into the National New Play Network, an exclusive group that fosters and shares new American plays. And its New Play Workshop, launched in 2005, continues to search out and foster local writers and bring their work onto the Road Less Traveled stage.
The company also launched a popular summer comedy series called “Celebrity Autobiography,” which wrapped up in August, and its space in the Market Arcade hosts projects like Alemaedae Theatre’s weekly Saturday-night comedy series and The Honesty Theatre’s upcoming monthly series of short plays.
“We’ve been able to sort of stabilize our focus, we’ve been able to continue our mission to be a cultural driver in the community,” Behrend said. “And now, this upcoming opportunity with 710 is a great way to showcase our work to a broader audience.”