The adage, “The show must go on,” seems particularly appropriate for those who toil away — for little or no personal monetary gain — in Queens community theater, which for the past several years has been going through rough times.
Attendance at performances is not what it used to be, theater space has become increasingly difficult to retain, and production costs, in keeping with the economy, are on the rise.
Still, those involved in producing shows are keeping their heads up and their hopes high.
Dave Shapiro, one of the driving forces behind the Little Theatre Group of Marathon Jewish Center in Douglaston, said the just-closed production of “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” attracted “decent audiences,” but added, “We’ve made much more money with past shows. People are just not there anymore.”
Shapiro, who has been involved with the group for over half a century, has noticed that “we get more and more seniors” coming to the shows.
“We’re all getting older,” he said. “Some have gone to Florida, some to heaven.”
Michael Wolf, the president of Douglaston Community Theatre, which was founded in 1950 and bills itself as the oldest theatrical group in the borough, realizes “the demographics are changing. There is a natural aging process. The new population in Queens is not in the habit of going to local productions. They have not yet tuned into this.”
Still, with the group’s most recent offering, “Awake and Sing,” Wolf said, “We did very well. We made significant money. The play still speaks to today. Clifford Odets isn’t done often. We have a mature audience who remember Odets.” Next up at DCT will be the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama ”The Heidi Chronicles,” which opens in May.
Wolf surmised that part of the problem is that “too many groups are doing the same shows over and over.”
Shapiro doesn’t buy that explanation, however. “Last year, we did ‘Crazy For You,’“ he said, referring to a musical based on Gershwin tunes. “It was one of our best financial years. And we had done the show before. I think ‘Forum’ is a better show, and we had never done it before,” but the show was not as profitable.
Asked for an explanation, Shapiro said, “I have no idea. It may be because ‘Crazy For You’ has a bigger cast.” Cast members are always heavily relied on to fill seats with friends and family.
Some groups are directly affiliated with houses of worship and are, therefore, not under the same financial pressures. One example is The Gingerbread Players, who perform at St. Luke’s Church of Forest Hills.
“We’re part of the church’s mission,” explained Louise Guinther, who directs many of their productions. As such, the group does not have to pay rent for its performance space, unlike the majority of theater companies that operate in church, synagogue or community buildings.
The group generally mounts two major productions a year, with all proceeds going to the church, Guinther said.
When it comes to attendance, she said, “We don’t seem to have trends up or down. The fall show depends on the material.”
Surprisingly, a recent evening devoted to the works of Anton Chekhov drew “unusually large crowds,” Guinther said, crediting the area’s large Russian population for the show’s success.
“If it’s a name show, we do very well,” Guinther said. “There’s a good market for family shows.” The players’ next attraction is “Annie,” a perennial favorite which they’ve done before, opening in April.
While the group has developed a reputation for presenting works with a classical bent in the fall — “We do Shakespeare in an accessible way,” Guinther explained — family-friendly fare is offered in the spring.
But for many groups, even when audiences do show up, costs for mounting productions are often so exorbitant that it is difficult to turn a profit.
“We used to pay $800 to 900 for the rights to do a musical,” Shapiro said. “Now the fee is around $2,100.”
More money is also being spent on scenery, costumes, and, for some groups, renting the theater space.
One company, Theatre Time, founded by Judy and Kevin Vincent in 1997, has been bounced from one location to another during its 15 years, and has been homeless since mounting a production of “Twelve Angry Men” last year.
“It is very difficult finding a space,” Judy Vincent said. “We’ve encountered spaces where theater, for whatever the reason, is not wanted. The amount of money wanted is astronomical.”
“As soon as a space is secured, Theatre Time will be back,” she vowed.
Also looking to make a return appearance are the Colonial Players, a group founded by another husband and wife team, Sharon and Bill Wolf.
“We’re planning a reunion for anyone who was affiliated with the group,” Sharon Wolf said. “It’s time. We’ve just been in hibernation for a while. It’s waking up.”