Is there such a thing as a good media conglomerate? If you're asking Thalia Spanish Theatre, and you're talking about Time-Warner Cable, who happens to filling the houses of the small independent Latino arts centers in Queens, the answer is si.
"They have been so extremely supportive," says Thalia Spanish Theatre's company manager Kathy Giaimo about Time-Warner. Thalia, founded by recently retired artistic director Sylvia Brito, has been an institution within the cultural make up of Sunnyside, Queens for the past 23 years. They have a long-established and consistent audience base, but are only just now garnering citywide recognition. The reason why? In a phrase, it pays to advertise. But in this case, with Time-Warner Cable, they didn't have to pay.
Among the many yearly projects Thalia engages in are the four free outdoor concerts at the Thompson Hill Park/Noonan Playground. Typically mounted in May (but slated for June this year), these concerts usually feature flamenco, tango, or operettas, and are funded in party by Time-Warner's Independence Community Foundation. In 1998, when Time-Warner representatives attended one of Thalia's stage productions, they were very impressed with the work that they saw, and soon suggested that Thalia send in a fully-produced 30-second spot (advertisement) that could be used to fill dead airspace. Thalia quickly obliged, producing an ad for their current production, Flamenco.
Apparently the spot was up to snuff, because the commercial can be seen often and on many different channels. "I've seen it everywhere," says Kathy Giaimo, pointing out that it runs not just at 3 or 4am, but also during prime time. "They will run it wherever there is available airspace. I've seen it on MTV, VH-1, NY-1, CNN, and even on the Sci-Fi Channel!" And while sci-fi and flamenco don't often mix, the airtime is appreciated all the same.
The effect on the box-office has been tremendous. Flamenco, which is purely a dance piece, originally opened in November of 1999 and closed in mid-December. Because of its surge in popularity, however, it has recently reopened, and will play until March 5, when it has to close to make way for the spring production.
Although Thalia has been a community favorite for years, its audience base has now broadened. Giaimo notes that the breakdown of where audience members are from is now "40% Queens, 30% Manhattan, and about 30% elsewhere. We even have several regulars who come from New Jersey." She adds, "The audience for the dance shows is at least 50% non-Hispanic speaking. This has had a big-time effect on box office."
When newcomers apprehensively make their way to this--well, what those with a Manhattan mentality might consider--remote location, they are always pleasantly surprised. The 75-seat theater is often referred to as a "jewel box", and some people seem to be amazed that it is a "real theater". Thalia reaffirms that moniker with their continual advances. They recently began accepting credit cards in their box office, and at their spring production--the world premiere of Picasso's Guernica, a new multi-media musical with a book by Jeronimo Lopez Mozo and music by Pablo Sorozabal and Teddy Bautista--they will have assigned seating for the first time. Guernica will also mark the first time that they are doing a show bi-lingually.
Aside from Thalia, theater in Queens is fairly limited, with only a bright spots of activity, such as the Black Spectrum in Jamaica and Queens Theater in the Park and a smattering of community theater company. As one of the oldest companies in the borough, Thalia has long taken the lead in trying to respond to the community's artistic and cultural needs. Always a potpourri of ethnic diversity, the Thalia addressed that issue at its founding in 1977. According to Giaimo, "We felt that the best way to do things was to do shows from Spain. Everyone in the Latino community has roots from there, so it was a way to reach out to everyone. Starting this year [with new artistic director Angel-Gil Orrios] we will be doing one play a year to spotlight a playwright from the Americas as well."
Since 1985, Giaimo says Thalia's "bread and butter" has been Zarzuelas, "turn-of-the-century Spanish operettas that combine the best poets and playwrights in Spain with dialogue sung by opera singers." In fact, El Diario, New York's leading Spanish-language daily, has declared Thalia the "Cathedral of Zarzuela." Not bad for a theater that started off as a storefront. As far as getting free commercial time for future productions, Giaimo says, "It would be nice, but I don't want to assume anything."
Flamenco is currently running every Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm at Thalia, located in Sunnyside, Queens at Greenpoint Avenue between 41st and 42nd Street (two blocks from Queens Blvd.).