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Collaborations benefit everyone

Earlier this year, the Acting Up Stage Company, a small and ambitious outfit based in Toronto, paired up with the city's Obsidian Theatre Company to create a stunning production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical "Caroline, Or Change."

Neither company had a space large enough for the production or its potential audience. Neither company could afford its daunting production costs. But each shared a vision for a project they couldn't accomplish on their own. Together, the companies produced a sold-out run of the musical that remains the talk of the city's critics and audiences.

"Caroline, Or Change" played in Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre, a 244-seat house owned by the Canadian Stage Company and rented by Acting Up. The production represented an ideal three-part collaboration of the sort that has not been feasible in Buffalo's highly segmented theater scene.

But earlier this week, when Shea's Performing Arts Center officially announced its long-germinating plans to reopen the former Studio Arena Theatre as 710 Main Street, the prospect for such projects became a reality.

The main task of the theater community at this moment is to build the stagnating audience for theater -- not merely to revel in the city's golden age of theatrical diversity. And no project has more potential to accomplish this than the opportunity to do smart collaborations of superior quality on a stage that serves more than 100 people at a time.

"If it's logical, and if it's not just a collaboration for collaboration's sake, but there's actually a logical fit programming-wise, you get a lot of advantages," said Mitchell Marcus, who directed Acting Up's production of "Caroline, Or Change." Beyond the obvious benefits of splitting costs, he said, collaborations allow companies to diversify audiences.

"Being able to bring two audiences together that normally do not see shows of the other company and to introduce everybody to other work, to have audiences engaged collectively in one room, I think it's the best way to break down the silos," he said.

Some who take issue with the historically conservative programming choices of Shea's president Anthony Conte have expressed fears that his organization will commandeer the building and parlay it into merely a cash cow for lowbrow money-makers. But those fears, considering Conte's progressive vision for the building and the fact that 710 Main Street is a separate entity with a separate board, seem for now unfounded.

"The primary thing we're trying to do with that building is partnerships with existing theater companies," Conte said in a March interview with The News. "I think the potential is absolutely endless if they grasp it, if they understand the concept and are willing to make it work," he said. "We're not saying we want you to add a show to your season and take more risk, we want you to take one of the shows you've planned for the season and just move the location and put it in a venue where you can get 600 seats sold instead of 95 seats or whatever the case may be."

The challenges of mounting smart collaborations are more complex than that, but not insurmountable. Buffalo's theater community is beginning to get over its fear of sacrificing niche audiences for the sake of broader growth. This reactionary theory, unfortunately, still has some vocal proponents locally. But, as more producers are learning in Toronto and elsewhere, independent theaters will only thrive by working more closely together.

"We've only grown our audience from doing these partnerships. We haven't been losing our audience from these partnerships," Marcus said. "To break down those silos and just create great theater and introduce people to new work and other people and new ways of doing things? It just is advantageous for everybody."