P.S. 122, Post-Russell, to Look at New Ways to Build Audiences

News   P.S. 122, Post-Russell, to Look at New Ways to Build Audiences
"It is with mixed emotions that I leave P.S. 122," said that institution's artistic and executive director Russell in a Dec. 16 statement that rocked the Downtown theatre scene. "I am gratified and proud to have been a part of this important part of performance history. However, the time has come for me to look for new challenges and I leave the Space with a committed staff and board to carry on."

Russell had headed P.S 122 since 1983, and is one of the few artistic mainstays known to Off-Off-Broadway, where he has shepherded the careers of many burgeoning talents. But both he and Don Guarnieri, P.S. 122's board president, acknowledged that the theatrical landscape has changed significantly in those two decades and that the famous presenting venue may have to revise its standard operating procedure.

"It's a really tough time," Russell told Playbill On-Line. "That's another reason I need to take a step back and see how I can be more effective. The whole 1970s-80s thing of doing as many shows as possible may not be as viable now. I'm interested in new models."

"Some things will continue," the way they are, said Guarnieri, but "we need to look out in the world and see what's going on. Everyone has gotten very sophisticated about their schedule. People have electronic reminders of where they're supposed to be next. P.S. has always been about anarchy and the serendipity of the moment."

Until now, Guarnieri said, P.S. 122 had culled much of its trade from "walk ups," the fickle, impetuous theatregoers who see shows on the spur of the moment. Others, who didn't act quickly enough, would often miss the typically short runs that the theatre features. Guarnieri would like to see more extensive planning change that reality. "We haven't been good at marketing and pre-selling those shows." Notions of membership and subscription will become more important in the future, Guarnieri affirmed. Also, he hopes to initiate new relationships with Manhattan's "gathering places," where potential ticket-buyers might lurk. "I've got to see people in the seats."

The board president explained that he had learned a lot from observing crowds at such night spots as Mercury Lounge, a Houston Street music venue. "They'd have four shows in one evening and four very distinct, different audiences would show up for each show." Guarnieri, who has been a member of the board for ten years, acknowledged that the last two, post-9/11 years had posed difficulties for the company. Matt & Ben, the commercial production which currently rents one of P.S. 122's two spaces, was contracted, in part, to provide a steady supply of needed revenue. More critical, however, were losses in the international audience. In a related problem, Visas for foreign artists that play P.S. 122 have become more expensive and difficult to obtain in the wake of the State Department's crackdown on visiting aliens.

Guarnieri said he had already received a few calls from people inquiring about the top job at P.S. 122. Before hiring anyone, however, he is considering separating the positions of artistic director and executive director, which were both held by Russell.

As for Russell, he plans to stay connected to P.S 122. "His two cents will be worth even more from the outside in," said Guarnieri. Has Russell been fielding a lot of offers since his resignation? "I'm going to be bought a lot of coffee in the next few weeks," he laughed.

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