THEATER IN BUFFALO IS NOT A CONTRADICTION.
On Allen Street in Buffalo, New York, there is an establishment called Rust Belt Books. While the name certainly pays ironic tribute to an outsider’s image of the city, the back room of this iconic haunt imparts a truer, and more progressive, vision. Tonight, the Brazen-Faced Varlets, a six-year young troupe known for its controversial works, presents Ladykillers, a collaborative and original piece that explores the minds of women who’ve killed. Intimately staged, Ladykillers is fresh and bold and engrossing. It’s also the eighth new work to make its debut in Buffalo since the season began September 10. Three weeks from now, that total will be 13—and it will only be November.
Shocked? I get that a lot, but I understand. I’m a Buffalo native who moved back in 2004 after living away for 22 years, most of them in a New York City suburb. An avid theatergoer, I started attending shows right away, more than usual because it was so affordable (and parking is easy!). I was astonished to learn that the vibrant and growing Buffalo theater scene has more than 15 professional or semi-professional theaters within city limits, and another ten or so on the outskirts; that makes it the state’s largest theater community outside Manhattan. Last year, area theaters filled 2.2 million seats. We have an ever-growing playwright community, many theaters committed to new plays, a unique Curtain Up! celebration and street party to start the season, an 11-day Infringement Festival each summer, the second largest free Shakespeare festival in the country, and our own “Tony night” featuring the Artie Awards.
This video, which came out last month, sums it up better than I ever could.
We have traditional spaces, but the non-traditional are much more fun. Road Less Traveled Productions is cleverly located in a retrofitted movie theater that still shows films in the summer months. Torn Space presents in just that, a space torn/borrowed from the Adam Mickiewicz Library Dramatic Circle, a Polish American club founded in 1895, which still serves as a Polish Community Center. The historic Pierce Arrow Building houses not one, but two theaters—Subversive Theatre and the three-years-old Alt Theatre. Buffalo United Artists operates out of a storefront on Chippewa, the main strip, while the American Repertory Theatre stages at Buffalo East, a bar repurposed as an arts space. And, of course, there’s Rust Belt Books.
I probably attend 40 to 50 shows a year and, after seven years, there are still theaters I haven’t been to (confession: this was my first night at Rust Belt) and still shows I miss because if I went to everything, it would be an expensive part-time job. But I’m not complaining; it’s this pulsating theater scene that made me a playwright. Because when a town has this many theaters, it’s not possible that they all be a Shea’s, which is the top-grossing single-week for Broadway tours in the American market. And they can’t all be a Studio Arena, our regional theater which regretfully closed in 2008, drowned in a sea of debt. (Admirably and tellingly, the theater community’s commitment to keep Studio a theater space has prevented any horrifying commercial annexing of the space, and Shea’s is currently seeking financing to resume operations there.) In fact, I’d argue that it’s the smaller, more intimate companies that are at the heart of the renaissance that came in the wake of Studio’s closing. Because it’s the smaller companies that most often embrace and expand the art by taking risks which, in our world, means new plays.
At the forefront of new play development is Road Less Traveled Theatre, which established the Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop in 2004. Alleyway Theatre’s mission is new plays, and it produces the annual winner of the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Contest. Subversive, Alleyway, and O’Connell and Company all produce original short play fests. Alt Theatre regularly produces new work, and has introduced a new play reading series. And I’ve seen new plays in at least five other theaters in the past two years. I love them all. I get a thrill from the totally new (and love to read for contests etc. for the same reason), the unexpected, the mystery, and the recognition that this has been built from scratch and is not biased by what’s gone before it.
Are they all good? Of course not. There have been musicals with laughable lyrics that I would love to share if it wouldn’t incriminate me, plays with incomplete or poorly executed premises, direction that misses the mark; that’s to be expected. But if a company never takes a chance, never allows a play to fall on its face, then we don’t get the moments that reveal a show’s promise. We don’t get new ideas, or plays that reflect the world we live in today. Fortunately, that’s not Buffalo.
Here, in the past year alone, Emmy-winner Shaun McLaughlin’s Internal Continuity, a skillful comedy about aging fanboys, made audience members roll in the aisles. My own world premiere, The Couple Next Door, a dramedy about swingers, made people think and became the second-highest grossing play in Road Less Traveled’s history. And Insidious, a dark comedy about addiction, transcended its Buffalo debut to become part of the 2011-2012 season at The Black Rep, the nation’s largest, professional African-American theater company. These things happen in Buffalo all the time, quietly, without anybody knowing it. And yes, these are conventional successes, but every new play—whether it plays to a full house or an audience of eight—is something to be proud of. And so is the theater community that makes it happen.