Off-Off-Broadway refers to theatrical productions in New York City that began as part of an anti-commercial and experimental or avant-guarde movement of drama and theatre. Off-Off-Broadway theatres are smaller than Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres, and usually have fewer than 100 seats, though the term is sometimes applied to any show in the New York City area that employs union actors but is not under an Off-Broadway, Broadway, or League of Resident Theatres contract. It is also often used in connection with shows that employ non-union actors.
The Off-Off-Broadway movement began in 1958 as a "complete rejection of commercial theatre". Michael Smith gives credit for the term's coinage to Jerry Tallmer in 1960. Among the first venues for what would soon be called "Off-Off-Broadway" theatre were coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, particularly the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street, operated by the eccentric Joe Cino, who early on took a liking to actors and playwrights and agreed to let them stage plays there without bothering to read the plays first, or to even find out much about the content. This DIY aesthetic also led to creative acts of object repurposing by playwrights and directors, who cobbled together sets from materials scavenged from local streets. Also integral to the rise of Off-Off-Broadway were Ellen Stewart at La MaMa, and Al Carmines at the Judson Poets' Theater, located at Judson Memorial Church. Other theaters of note that presented many plays were Theatre Genesis, New York Theatre Ensemble, The Old Reliable, The Dove Company. The Playwrights Workshop, and Workshop of the Players Art (WPA).
At its coalescence, Off-Off-Broadway was known for its experimental nature. Brooks McNamara wrote that over time, Off-Off-Broadway work lost some of its experimental spirit, instead beginning to imitate the "characteristics of off-Broadway, which had gradually moved toward reshaping itself in the image of Broadway, though often producing works that were unsuitable for commercial theatre."
An Off-Off-Broadway production that features members of Actors Equity is called an Equity Showcase production; not all Off-Off-Broadway shows are Equity Showcases. The union maintains contractual rules about working in such productions, including restrictions on price, the length of the run and rehearsal times. Professional actors' participation in showcase productions is frequent and comprises the bulk of stage work for the majority of New York actors. There has been an ongoing movement to revise the Equity Showcase rules, which many in the community find overly restrictive and detrimental to the creation of New York theatre.
In 1964, Off-Off-Broadway productions were made eligible for Obie Awards, and in 1974, the Drama Desk Awards began evaluating such productions with the same criteria as it used for Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.
The term indie theatre, or independent theatre, coined by playwright Kirk Bromley during a speech at the 2005 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, is sometimes used instead of the term Off-Off-Broadway, particularly by the League of Independent Theater and the website nytheatre.com.
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