Local theater deserves to spread wings

By Ronald B. Hellman

The more things change, the more they stay the same (French proverb).

It’s been 10 years since this column first appeared in print — June 14, 2007, to be precise — and I’m feeling kind of nostalgic. I was prompted to write “The Play’s the Thing” to promote and publicize local theater, which sadly still does not garner the coverage it deserves.

Most productions don’t garner reviews or even notices, and many are heard about only by word of mouth. So, in case you have missed or forgotten any of my 150 columns, let’s reminisce.

In 2009, I wrote about a video I had just seen of an interview on Queens Public Television that had taken place 20 years earlier in which Ina Jay Hayle, Roxanne Alese and I came to the conclusion that the local theater groups were producing the same shows over and over again, and that there was no theater space in Queens.

An exaggeration to be sure, but with some exceptions, that’s still true today. This has been a major theme of my columns.

Churches, synagogues and schools are the prime venues rented to our theater companies, but none have the facilities that a real theater enjoys, putting our borough of over 2 million inhabitants at a great disadvantage.

I have suggested, perhaps with magical thinking, that a wealthy patron or two build us a playhouse with their name on it, or, maybe just as remotely, that our political representatives take the initiative to get us some substantial funding.

When it comes to what is presented on stage, many groups claim that they have to stage well-known plays, musicals, light comedies and mysteries to attract an audience. However, the awful truth is that they all have a tough time filling the seats anyway.

I have written a number of columns on ways to sell tickets, but it’s not easy and there’s no sure thing. Contemporary plays and diverse casting would help and would appeal to the largely untapped younger audience.

The groups themselves need to be organized, something that the long-ago Queens Theatre Network tried to do. The local productions have the advantage of an affordable ticket price, being easy to get to, and featuring some remarkably talented performers. Let’s get the word out.

Some of my favorite columns have dealt with intellectual property and getting the rights to copyrighted material; smoking on stage and the history of fires in theaters; non-traditional casting; the dueling “Macbeths” and the Astor Place Riot of 1849; censorship; cellphones; and even some politics.

I have profiled and highlighted many theater groups and local celebrities and notables, and have been proud of my own Outrageous Fortune Company that produced 50 plays over 17 years at Queens Theatre in the Park, homeless now for the last seven years.

If you, or your company, have not been included or overlooked, or if you have suggestions for other topics to be explored, let me know. Perhaps the best of times is yet to come.

Contact Ron Hellman at rbhofc@gmail.com.

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