The former Studio Arena was once a nationally respected linchpin of the regional theater world. That was a long time ago; now the arduous job of reshaping an icon is under way. It’ll be a slow process but well worth the effort.
The institution saw its last performance in late February 2008. The building then remained empty for nearly four years, until Shea’s Performing Arts Center, under the leadership of President and CEO Anthony Conte, took over the theater’s operations.
Shea’s is trying to raise money by selling naming rights to what is now called simply 710 Main Theatre. Buffalo’s sports venues and theaters in other cities have corporate names, but the practice has been slow to take hold in the cultural world here.
The regional theater landscape has changed a great deal since the Studio Arena Theatre had its heyday and provided a stage for such renowned performers as James Whitmore, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Roy Scheider, Christine Baranski, Kelsey Grammer, Nancy Marchand and many more.
The theater was once a place where plays debuted before heading off to Broadway. But that hasn’t happened since “Ring of Fire” eight years ago. The production about Johnny Cash, created by Tony Award-winner Richard Maltby Jr., enjoyed only a short run on Broadway.
It’s easy to pine for the glory days of the 1970s under Neil Du Brock, but those days aren’t coming back. It’s a different theater world from that in which Du Brock directed the world premieres of important plays, including Edward Albee’s “Box.” Albee’s last Buffalo visit three years ago was at the invitation of the Road Less Traveled Theater, one of the more than 20 companies active in Buffalo’s theater scene that are filling many of the roles of the former theater.
Shooting for the Broadway stars shouldn’t be the mission for the old Studio space. Nor should the community be satisfied with a reduced role for the building, which is within the Theater District. Rather, the faded icon has a role to fill as a medium-size theater that can bring in such productions as John Lithgow’s one-man show, “Stories by Heart,” which had a two-day run last September.
Conte also has allowed the 625-seat theater to be used by Road Less Traveled Theater and MusicalFare when they needed a bigger space.
After years of decline, the former Studio Arena saw its demise because of a board that failed it and a management that indulged itself in shows it thought were prestigious, if not experimental, but were not popular with theatergoers. Management forgot the cardinal necessity of filling seats with paid admissions.
Struggling finances became the catalyst for a series of bad decisions and misguided cuts. The final curtain fell slowly and painfully. But Conte has brought a business acumen that was previously missing, along with a tacit acknowledgment that maintaining the venue as a community asset is much more important than taking a show to Broadway.
The naming rights campaign is a clever way to generate some income and raise the profile of the theater. And it also signals an opportunity for a civic-minded individual or company to pitch in and help revitalize a treasured piece of Buffalo’s theater history.