Off-Off-Broadway Demographics Report Released

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The New York Innovative Theatre Awards has released a potentially groundbreaking report on the demographics of Off-Off-Broadway practitioners — the actors, playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers and crew (not to mention the administrative, marketing, PR and other personnel) who make independent theater come to life in New York.

Which is to say that when we’re discussing Off-Off-Broadway folk, we’re usually talking about many of these hats being worn by the same people precisely at the same time.

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This is the third of a projected five-report series on Off-Off-Broadway workers, and it covers an especially long period of time: September 2007 through February 2009. The survey, which runs 78 pages, can be read in its entirety here. The data collection, though unquestionably not as comprehensive as might be possible given the endless multiplicity of independent-theater artists operating in Gotham, is nevertheless impressive: 4,136 surveys collected and 4,094 deemed “viable,” having weeded out duplicates and other anomalies.

In addition, the sample of the Off-Off-Broadway “population” included in the survey underscores the time-honored idea that New York is really melting pot for artists as well as ethnicities and religions. “Birthplaces of respondents,” the report says, “included all 50 states and 81 different countries.” But here’s the worrisome flip side: “While the majority of respondents are in their late 20s, a wide range of age groups is represented.” In other words, we can confirm what those in the know already knew: Off-Off-Broadway is a younger person’s game, for the perfume of poverty and being ignored by the media does very often get old by the time a theater artist is 40 or 50 or older.

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Here are some key findings of the report:

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  • 85% of the OOB population holds a college degree. This is 58% higher than the national average.
  • 86% voted in the 2004 presidential election. This is 22% higher than the national average of 64%.
  • 68% of respondents are age 21-40
  • 53% of respondents are female
  • Income level of Off-Off-Broadway artists is near the national average, and slightly below the New York State average
  • 91% of respondents live in New York City

Drilling down, however, some the statistics are particularly sobering. Back to the age question, for example, 13% of the respondents were ages 21 to 25; 24% were ages 26 to 30; 19% were ages 31 to 35. That’s 56% — so the question is what motivates older theater artists to keep working Off-Off-Broadway? (The report doesn’t examine this sociological issue — perhaps the next one will.) And, like so much of the rest of the American theater, Off-Off-Broadway is pretty darn white:

A majority of the respondents (77%) reported their race to be White/Caucasian (see graph 3). This is slightly higher than the national average of 75% (see graph 4). 5% or 210 respondents reported their race to be “Black/African American,” compared to the national average of 12%. 3% of the respondents reported being Asian/Pacific Islanders which is comparable to the national average of 4%.

It is also a single person’s game:

50% of the respondents reported being single. …748 respondents indicated that they were living with their partner, which represented 18% of the sample group. Combined, these two data points equal 68%…

And that is to say that most of them are living quintupled up in somebody’s rundown tenement, since 50% of the respondents live in Manhattan, 30% live in Brooklyn and 16% live in Queens.

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Meanwhile, some of the statistics are simply odd. There is a chart, for example, breaking down what percentage of respondents voted in the 2004 election; it’s hard to imagine a solid statistical or logistical reason why similar numbers could not (or should not) have been provided for voting in the 2008 election, which most people would agree was a bit more momentous.

Similarly, 65% of the respondents were actors, which strikes me as lopsided. Not that there aren’t more actors than there are playwrights or directors or people wearing any of those other aforementioned hats, but underneath all the numbers is reason to question the methodology here. Some 29% call themselves “administrator/producer”; some 24% call themselves directors, some 22% call themselves playwrights. Then there is a table (all on page 23) in which it is disclosed that 43% of respondents “reported that their work in the theater consists of multiple disciplines.” If that is the case, would a more penetrating analysis consist of looking at the costs involved, the inefficiencies and struggles involved, in being forced by the economics of Off-Off-Broadway to assume so many roles?

On the other hand, the statistics on income were absolutely right on the mark: with 7% earning less than $10,000 a year from the business; 28% earning between $10,000 and $30,000 annually; 32% earning between $30,000 and $50,000; 17% earning between $50,000 and $75,000; 6% earning between $75,000 and $100,000; 4% earning over $100,000 a year; and 6% declining to respond or so dispirited that they stopped counting their dimes.

Finally, some theater professionals aren’t doing a very good job: Just 9% of the respondents belong to a theatrical union. Correction: the figure is “48% of the respondents currently belong to at least one theatrical union. Nearly a third of the total respondents reported being members of the Actors’ Equity Association (see graph 16). 371 or 9% of the respondents are members of the Dramatists Guild. Apologies for misplacing the 9% in question.

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The report does list some 30 additional unions beyond that of Actors’ Equity, the Dramatists Guild, etc., including Sword Swallowers International, which seems like a pretty sharp move.

Still, the question remains: Is it that Off-Off-Broadway practitioners have no use for unions, or is it that unions have no use for them?

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