If you can't bring people to the theater, sometimes it's best to bring the theater to the people.
At least that's the philosophy of Saul Elkin and David Bunis, the co-founders of Buffalo's Jewish Repertory Theatre, which officially opened its new theater Thursday night. They did so not in the downtown Theater District, which has been striving toward an elusive critical mass of professional theaters for years, but in suburban Getzville.
The Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, located at the Getzville campus of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, was jammed with people Thursday night for the inaugural offering, a sold-out production of William Luce's play "Lillian" starring company veteran Christina Rausa.
Many had traveled a short distance to the theater from Amherst and its surrounding communities, where a large number of Western New York's Jewish residents reside. Some came from farther afield. All of them were thrilled to take part in the first opening of a new theater in Western New York in years.
At its heart, the JRT's decision to locate its theater in the 'burbs, while it may rankle some dedicated to the worthy goal of a truly vibrant downtown Theater District, is about facing up to facts. One of these facts is that Buffalo's population has fallen 10 percent in the past decade, while the population of Amherst has increased 5 percent, to 122,366. Another is that JRT's audience members are largely older and many more of them live in or near Amherst than in Buffalo.
The JRT is following the lead of Randall Kramer's MusicalFare Theatre in Snyder, where audiences increased in size between 2000 and 2010 (from 16,000 to 25,000) and artistic quality has often followed suit. Because of the new location, JRT's audience also stands to grow markedly.
Theater directors are powerful people, capable of incredible feats of imagination. But one thing they can't do is singlehandedly reverse population trends and suburban sprawl. Nor can they simply revise the median age of their audience.
And while it still makes sense to advocate fiercely for the increased health and vitality of a Buffalo-centric Theater District, a mix of arts organizations and activities that represents the changing distribution of Buffalo Niagara's population isn't necessarily a bad thing. Larger and healthier regions have theaters both in concentrated downtown pockets and in suburban outposts, a configuration from which those theater scenes clearly benefit.
Grumbling from some in the theater community about the potential downside of establishing more professional theaters in the suburbs has been mild but audible. To them, places like MusicalFare and now JRT help to reinforce the notion of downtown Buffalo as an unfriendly or even frightening place to visit.
But the evidence suggests that the supposed reticence of suburbanites to make the trek downtown isn't nearly as entrenched as one might think. In the 2010-11 season, according to new numbers released by the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo, 275,000 visited Shea's Performing Arts Center alone. The other members of the alliance drew a combined 196,000 people last season to their theaters, many of which are downtown.
There are also some positive residual effects of establishing a theater in a place like Getzville that may not be immediately evident. The larger the audience, the bigger the chance that someone in that audience -- a grandchild, maybe -- gets hooked on theater for life. That person probably won't think much about taking a 15-minute ride into Buffalo to pursue their newfound passion.
We don't know quite yet how the size and demographics of JRT's audience will change in its new permanent home. But all signs point to it changing for the better.