As creative ecologies go, few are more fascinating than Buffalo’s theater scene. Were Darwin alive today, he might be studying it.
Over the past year, the region’s buzzing and highly Balkanized scene has continued to add new companies at a rate that belies the current atmosphere of tepid funding and population decline.
This trend has resulted in breathless activity, giving off a superficial impression of vibrancy and attracting curious theatergoers with adventurous tastes. On a per-capita basis, few American cities can compete with Buffalo, which now boasts some 25 active professional or semiprofessional companies and many more community theaters.
But the hyper-diversification of the scene over the past 20 years, driven by equal parts ego and entrepreneurial spirit, also has thrown up major challenges to companies vying for a thinly spread talent pool. In the past, that has had a downward pull on quality across the board and deterred potential theatergoers (i.e. most of the population) for whom the faintest whiff of amateurishness is kryptonite.
In 2011 and 2012, many theaters made heartening strides and increased the quality of their productions against great odds and increased competition. But the scene took a small slide back in the quality department in 2013, owing at least in part to the continued dilution of the talent pool.
(In his evaluation of 2013, News contributing reviewer Ben Siegel said he saw many more attempts at original or innovative productions from new and established companies, and that he took this as a positive step whether or not they came off perfectly.)
The past year has seen the addition of at least three new or rebooted theater companies. Second Generation Theatre, the brainchild of a trio of young performers, made a bold entrance in June with its lovely interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” This month, both the Buffalo Public Theatre and Raíces Theatre Company tossed their bedazzled hats into the city’s already crowded theatrical ring with well-received productions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “La Gringa.”
In many ways, these three recent arrivals are less a sudden rush of new blood than a welcome redistribution of resources.
Buffalo Public Theatre co-founder Kelli Bocock-Natale long plied her trade under the auspices of the New Phoenix Theatre, while Loraine O’Donnell is a familiar face on stage and behind the scenes at several local companies. Both of them now will be pouring their creative energy into this new partnership with Ujima Theatre, a perpetually teetering enterprise in dire need of stable support.
Raíces, which Victoria Perez and Rolando Gómez first launched a decade ago, is returning at a time when the appetite for theater by and for Buffalo’s 20,000 Latinos apparently has grown. To make a vast understatement, this is a niche worth filling.
The region’s greatest opportunity for creative collaboration and audience building – 710 Main Street, formerly Studio Arena Theatre – buzzed to life in the past year but has understandably not yet realized potential. It has, however, hosted excellent local productions for the first time since 2008, including Road Less Traveled Productions’ “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “Clybourne Park.”
The coming year likely will see the addition of still more companies. The question is whether the level of production at the companies that now exist will improve or stagnate.