Breaking Even on Broadway

Bob Balaban’s panel discussion, “The Producers,” leads off the Hamptons Institute tomorrow afternoon.

    The Hamptons Institute will return to Guild Hall in its second iteration beginning tomorrow with “The Producers,” a panel discussion focused on the changing and differing roles of theater producers in the high-stakes real estate of Broadway.
    Bob Balaban will moderate the panel, which includes Roy Furman, James Nederlander, and Daryl Roth. Mr. Balaban credited Ellen Chesler for the billing, “I like her a lot; she’s good at putting things together,” he said last week.
    While Mr. Balaban has not had extensive experience producing live theater, he has produced plays off Broadway and is producing a play right now. He also produced a film, “Gosford Park,” directed by Robert Altman in which he had a starring role, and has produced some television. “I have enough shallow knowledge to sustain a discussion,” he said.
    Producers are often known for the business side of their profession — number crunching to keep operating costs down, vitally important to the profitability of a play. “You will burn money in a film but that ends after a while. In theater it does not stop. There are famous plays that never made money.”
    Theater producers are “very instrumental in the creation of material as well,” he said. “Their taste is reflected in that and they still have that power as those who produce movies do not.”
    The talk as he sees it is “going to be exciting for me and the audience, given the variety of what they have produced on Broadway and how they do what they do.”
    Mr. Nederlander comes from a theater dynasty, which both owns theaters and produces what goes on in them. Shows currently running at his family’s theaters include “Catch Me If You Can,” “Rain,” and “The Addams Family.” Due to open next year are “Porgy and Bess” and “Follies.”
    Ms. Roth produced “The Normal Heart” written by Larry Kramer, a critic and audience favorite that won the Tony Award for this year’s best revival of a play, among other accolades. She has also produced or co-produced plays such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “A Little Night Music,” and “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
    Contrasting the two producers’ styles, Mr. Balaban said Mr. Nederlander’s organization is known for its predilection for musicals and Ms. Roth is looking for serious, difficult, and challenging plays, such as Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” and other Pulitzer Prize-winners like “Proof,” “Wit,” and “How I Learned to Drive.”
    Mr. Furman shares a producing credit for “The Book of Mormon” and many of the Nederlander presentations including “The Addams Family,” “Pris­cilla Queen of the Desert,” and “Come Fly Away.” He also revived “West Side Story” in 2009, which closed this year.
    “Arthur Laurents wrote that play 55 years ago and it still has a similar relevancy today,” Mr. Balaban said. “Theater is eternally relevant. It runs in cycles. Just as the Renaissance brought art out of the Dark Ages, there was nothing new on Broadway for a long time. The last two seasons have had great and interesting stuff.”
    He said there is a human need for live performance that can be traced back to the stories told around the fire in the cave. “Storytelling is genetically ingrained in us and we need to be around other people to watch stories being told.”
    It is the same with Shakespeare, but not because of its academic heft. He said the plays become “very present, immediate, and contemporary” when they are treated as the murder mysteries and slapstick comedies they were intended to be in their time. “When directors figure out how to do that, you’re channeling back hundreds of years, but watching something very alive and you have a great time.”
    Anyone who has worked in theater knows it’s a different performance night to night. He said the difference stems not just from the interaction of the characters onstage but in the communication that takes place between the actors and the audience. “There is a back-and-forth, a real dialogue with the audience and the play. Each night, the audience sees a different play. You become really aware of this magical thing that only happens in theater.”
    Theater producers, he said, tend to produce  only theater. “It’s so different from producing other things.” So many successful shows barely break even and can lose money. “I think it requires a dedicated person; no one goes in it to get rich.”
    Other discussions during the weekend will include “Jobs, Debt, and China: America’s Top Economic Challenges” with Byron Wein moderating and Jared Bernstein and Zachary Karabell as panelists. “The Outlook In the Middle East” will be led by Karen Greenberg with Daniel Yergin, Jane Harman, and Hisham Melhem. The Obama presidency will be dissected by Bob Caro, Jonathan Alter, and H.W. Brands, in a discussion moderated by Lynn Sherr.
    Turning to tech, Christine Cook of “The Daily” and Chris Cunningham of Appssavvy will address how the retail market connects through new platforms as part of “The Evolution of Digital” discussion moderated by Michael Gutkowksi with more panelists to be announced. The weekend will end with the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center Annual Lecture, this year featuring Gail Levin on Lee Krasner in East Hampton.  
    Individual tickets begin at $20, or $18 for Guild Hall members, with a variety of packages available. Sunday’s lecture costs $15, $13 for members.