The Gallery Players, an Off-Off Broadway theater in Park Slope, has been putting on shows for more than forty years. In the group’s current space on 14th Street, just off Fourth Avenue, it does eight shows and programs a season, split evenly between plays and musicals, usually revivals of popular works: so far this season, they’ve done The Drowsy Chaperone and Reefer Madness, Dancing at Lughnasa and August Wilson’s Jitney. They also manage a theater summer camp in the community, and host a black-box festival highlighting new plays. We spoke to Neal J. Freeman, the group’s executive director—as well as the director of the Oliver! revival that kicks off this weekend and runs through May 22—to hear about what they do and what it’s like doing it in Brooklyn.
Do you consider yourselves a “community theater”?
Absolutely not! We are an Off-Off Broadway theater and a member of New York’s vibrant independent theater community, but we are most definitely not a “community theater.” I think of community theater as something created by volunteers, usually people who have other jobs and other lives but see theater as a fun creative outlet. We are very happy to say that the work on our stages is created by professionals, people trying to do this for a living. And, while we don’t pay very much, we do pay our artists. One of the biggest benefits of having a theater like ours in New York is the availability of so many talented professionals looking to get their work seen here in the city.
Are there challenges to running an Off-Off Broadway theater so far from the city’s traditional theater nexuses?
The biggest challenge is convincing people we aren’t, in fact, that far away! I think in this city that people are very willing to step out of Manhattan to see quality theater, and I know for a fact that our audiences—as well as our creative teams and casts—come from all over the city. However, we’re constantly fighting the perception in press coverage and reviews that we are “off the beaten path” while in fact we are just a few stops into Brooklyn, in one of the borough’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
Are there any upsides?
Certainly there is an economic upside, as we could not afford to do what we do in a similar-sized space in Manhattan, which would be exponentially more expensive. We also have a strong connection to some of the local businesses in our immediate neighborhood, and I think that comes from being in a place that feels like just that—a neighborhood. In addition, there is just less competition in Brooklyn. We believe we are the destination for theater in our corner of the borough; it’s a lot harder to say that about, say, the West Village or Hell’s Kitchen.
Has the transformation of Brooklyn over the last few decades affected what you do?
I’m not sure that it has. The Gallery Players has been in our current space since 1989 and in Park Slope since 1968, and while the area around the theater has most definitely changed since those early days, our dedication to creating quality theater at affordable prices has not, nor has our ability to find an audience to see it. Perhaps in more recent years we’ve been able to bring in more audiences from farther away in the city than used to venture out to Park Slope, but for whatever reason the theater has always found an audience. Today, with Fourth and Fifth avenues in the midst of a strong revival, we are very excited to tell our audiences about all the great places immediately around the theater to grab a drink or a bite before or after a show, so I would say that things around us are definitely changing for the better even if what we do remains the same.
Is there something unique about Park Slope that makes what you do possible?
It’s not entirely irrelevant, especially given the economics of Brooklyn compared to Manhattan, but I think what’s more important is that we’ve stuck around in the same neighborhood for so long, wherever that neighborhood happens to be. People know where to find us, and they have some sense of what they’re going to get when they visit us. That consistency of location I think is very important in developing and maintaining our identity because theater is entirely about the live event. It’s about being there.
How do you decide which shows to perform?
Our artistic director, Heather Siobhan Curran, leads this process, generating a list of potential shows based on what she believes will work best in our season slots—we produce eight shows a year. She is advised by a small play-reading committee and then we bring the list to our full Board of Directors for input. After that, it’s about applying for the performance rights, which often dictates what we can and can’t produce, more often the latter! Once the rights start coming in, we make our final decisions for each slot and usually announce the season in May.