The Las Vegas theater community has been growing for years now. It boasts a handful of local theater companies and venues, as well as the Smith Center performing arts center and UNLV’s Judy Bailey Theatre.
But another growth spurt may be on the horizon.
Soho Playhouse, a theater institution in New York City, is looking into establishing a presence in Las Vegas. And that could mean the city’s first Off-Broadway venue. Or maybe multiple venues?
Darren Lee Cole is the artistic director for Soho Playhouse. He explained that 'Off-Broadway' has a specific meaning in New York City, besides location.
Theaters of 500 seats or more are considered to 'Broadway' theaters. Theaters of 100 to 499 are considered to be 'Off-Broadway,' and those with 100 seats and fewer are considered to be 'Off-Off Broadway.'
Cole said 'Off-Broadway' theaters are also known for offering a certain style of performing arts. One of the founder members of the Soho Playhouse, the playwright Edward Abee, said people go to Broadway to see and they go Off-Broadway to feel.
Cole said there are two reasons Soho Playhouse was drawn to Las Vegas. The first is the population. He said there are now about 2.5 million people who call Southern Nevada home.
“That would make it the largest metropolitan area in the United States without an off-Broadway style, or what we call, middle-equity-house style theater,” he said.
The second reason came from Cole himself. He has family that lives here, which means he has visited several times.
“I’ve been a quite frequent visitor over those years and have noticed in the cultural landscape of Las Vegas there does seem to be an opportunity or a bit of a missing piece with specifically what we do in New York,” he said.
Cole believes Las Vegas is ripe for larger productions that may not be the scale of the Broadway shows featured at the Smith Center but also not the smaller productions featured at the city's smaller theaters.
“I do think Las Vegas, as it currently stands, is underestimated culturally and the populace is a bit underestimated,” he said.
Cole knows Las Vegas has a reputation for being a cultural desert, but that's not what he has found.
"Everybody I talk to seems to be very aware of that and not participating in that voidness. They’re very actively engaged in the culture,” he said.
He also noted that so many people have moved to Southern Nevada from other places that do have a vibrant theater scene they expect to see the same thing here.
“As that population increases here, the need for theater screams out more and more,” he said.
Although the plans haven't been finalized, Cole believes there is a program at Soho Playhouse that would be a perfect fit for Las Vegas. The program is called the International Fringe Encore Series.
It is a collection of plays from the top fringe theater festivals around the world. Fringe theater refers to top emerging playwrighting talent.
“The first thing that we would do upon launching in Las Vegas is move that series to Las Vegas,” he said.
Where exactly those productions would take place is still being discussed, Cole said. One consideration is to buy property, likely in the Arts District, and build a complex of performance art spaces.
The playhouse is also considering buying a block of existing buildings and creating a theater district, similar to what they have in New York City.
Another option is to buy an existing theater that is in disrepair, repair it and use it as the home of Soho Playhouse Las Vegas. The theater that comes to mind is the Huntridge Theater.
Cole said they have talked to developer J Dapper about the property, but nothing is official.
While the exact plans are being worked out, the Soho Playhouse has already started a grant program for local artists.
“We felt it important to come into a new community where we want to express our art and share our art with the community here that the first thing to do is to reach out to that community and its artists,” he said.
The company has reached out to local theater companies and has asked artistic directors from a number of them to help in the grant selection process.
Sarah O'Connell is the artistic director for the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. She is also the founder of the Producers Alliance.
She told KNPR's State of Nevada that she is excited at the prospect of having the Soho Playhouse in Las Vegas, but people need to understand that the playhouse is not starting from scratch.
She there is a wealth of talented artists, arts educators, patrons, nonprofits and associations that have been developed and nurtured for years in Las Vegas.
“There’s a lot here that I can’t wait to introduce anyone who wants to come here and continue to build the bridges that keep new work flourishing around the country,” she said.
She also agreed that Las Vegas needs to have a place where talented people can go from a small, under 100 seat theater, to a larger venue without having to go to Los Angeles or New York City.
But she believes it is not about the talent in Las Vegas but the perception that those talented people are someplace else. O'Connell said the talented people who produce and run the productions at the Smith Center and the Strip are the same ones working on productions at the local level.
She noted that members of the Producers Alliance have been bringing New York City playwrights to Southern Nevada for decades, and she wonders why the playwrights know about our theater scene but the producers don't.
In addition, O'Connell said the moment is right to not just grow but to rebuild the performing arts industry.
“We are facing a crisis, not just in Las Vegas, but in the entire theatrical landscape, which means it is the greatest opportunity, in modern times, in the history of our art form, to play this game of 52 pick-up and stack the deck in a better order for our art form,” she said.
Cole is happy to partner with local companies and associations. He said the Soho Playhouse is not about parachuting into a location to put on a production with New York City talent.
“We very much desire to integrate ourselves into the association that Sarah runs and others and do what we can, again, to grow the opportunities, to grow the existing eco-system and hopefully, begin to add more to it,” he said.
Cole said his team wants to enhance, grow and service the theater industry in Southern Nevada.
Darren Lee Cole, artistic director, Soho Playhouse; Sarah O’Connell, artistic director, Asylum Theatre
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.