The La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
Everyone has heard of Broadway, right? And I am sure many have heard of Off-Broadway. What about Off-Off-Broadway? Let’s not overlook this influential arts scene known to be a breeding ground for experimentation. According to a survey by New York Innovative Theatre Awards, there are approximately 500 theatre companies in the Off-Off-Broadway community, making it one of the largest arts communities in the world. It produces 2,000 shows featuring the work of an estimated 40,000 artists for 1.5 million audience members each year. Not bad, don’t you think?
First of all, for those who don’t know the difference between Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway, here’s a simple explanation. Theatres with 499 and larger generally denote Broadway, while those with 99 to 499 seats generally denote Off-Broadway. Any theatre with less than 99 seats is Off-Off-Broadway.
People usually assume that Broadway productions are called “Broadway” because the venue is found on the street called “Broadway.” Let me pop that bubble for you. Of the 40 professional Broadway theatres, only four are actually on the Broadway, the street. That’s the Winter Garden, the Roundabout, the Marquis, and the Broadway Theatre. In fact, a few theatre venues on Broadway, the street, are considered Off-Broadway. The lesson here is not to take the names “Broadway” or “Off-Broadway” literally.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s go back to our main subject – the Off-Off-Broadway movement.
The Off-Off-Broadway movement began in 1958 as a reaction to Off-Broadway, and a complete rejection of commercial theatre. One of the first venues to embrace the movement was the Greenwich Village coffeehouse Caffe Cino. Joe Cino, who operated the café, would allow actors and playwrights to stage plays there without bothering to read the plays first, or to even find out much about the content. This led to creative acts of object repurposing by playwrights and directors, who cobbled together sets from materials scavenged from local streets.
Today, Off-Off-Broadway theatres can be found throughout New York. Popular ones include La Mama ETC (photo in this article), the Nuyorican Poets Café, or HERE Arts Center. These venues may be smaller in comparison to Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres, and they earn less, but Off-Off-Broadway allow artists to create an opening for more experimental and intimate theatre experiences, which often cannot be reproduced on Broadway shows.