NYC Theatre Research Project

General Guidelines

Lectures and readings on the history of NYC theatre will help you understand how economics, immigration, urban development, transportation, and development of performance forms shaped the growth and change of theater in NYC.

Words and phrases to avoid in college-level writing:
“kind of like” or “sort of like”
old school
back in the day

Avoid these common grammatical errors

  • Forgetting to initial capitalize the first word of a sentence
  • Forgetting to initial capitalize proper nouns
  • Forgetting to capitalize the pronoun “I”
  • Starting a sentence with a conjunction (with, and)
  • Sentences lacking a subject noun or verb

Images and citations: For all stages of this project, you must include citations in a bibliography. Your images must be titled. Provide a Creative Commons license for images when relevant. Here’s how to format citations for bibliography (articles and images), and what to include in image titles (title, artist, source, date, creative commons license): Refer to this PDF. 

Act I: Virtual place-based research

  1. Select an existing theater in one of the five boroughs of NYC to research. Do not select a theater between 34th and 59th streets in Manhattan. Choose ONLY a theater for which architectural plans are available for reproduction. Use this Story Map to select a theater according to neighborhood (blue markings indicate theaters in operation today).
  2. Virtual place-based research: conduct a visual study of the immediate vicinity of the theater (no more than a 10-block radius, which is 5 blocks in any direction from the theater location). Complete Site Report 1 (working independently from your partner), using the archives, repositories, and databases below (some require CT login).
Databases for virtual place-based research

NYCity Map

Google Maps (try Street View and Satellite View)

Google Earth

Art Full Text


Social Explorer


Act II. Archival dig

  1. Architectural elevations, plans, and sections, with attributions (citation). Do not use seating charts in place of architectural plans. 
  2. Historical photographs of the theater, inside and out, with attributions.
  3. Annotated bibliography: three sources (minimum one print media source) containing historical and architectural information. Here is information about citation formatting for electronic sources and annotated bibliographies (Purdue Owl). Here is an example of an annotated bibliography (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Here is another.

Each annotation should be one paragraph in length (written in complete sentences) and contain historical information about the following:

  • Answers to your research questions from Act I.
  • Date theatre was designed and built. Is the theater a purpose-built or adapted performance space? If adapted, what was the original building designed for? What architectural changes were made when converted to a theatre? Who was the architect of the purpose-built and/or adapted space?
  • Description of the architectural styles of the facade and interior elements.
  • What is the stage/audience arrangement? How are seats and sections in the auditorium arranged? Describe the dimensions and uses all the areas available to patrons.
  • What are the dimensions of the stage? What are the technological capacities for production? Discuss backstage, wings, fly space, etc.
  • Describe the neighborhood in which the theatre was originally built. Was it residential, industrial, or retail? Was it a known theatre district? For what types of productions or audiences was the theatre built? 

Here is an example of an excellent Act II report. 

Databases for historical research

NY Public Library Digital Collection: Streetscapes

NY Public Library Digital Collection: Photographic Views of NYC, 1870s-1970s

NY Public Library Digital Collections: Billy Rose Theatre Collection

NY Public Library Digital Collections: NYC Theatre Marquees

NY Public Library Digital Collection: Maps of NY City and State

Map Warper (NYPL)

Digital Culture Metropolitan NY

Museum of the City of New York

OldNYC (Mapping NYC history by blocks)

NYC Fire Insurance, Topographical, and Property Maps (NYPL)

Spotlight on Broadway

Guide to Researching the History of NYC Buildings, Gray

Act III: GIS Research

Scenario: You have been hired to conduct an analysis of the demographics, urban infrastructure and social conditions of a neighborhood for your theater. The producers want to be able to connect with the community and produce theater that attracts locals. What infrastructure supports access? What conditions are hurting or helping ticket sales? What kinds of plays or entertainments would be most attractive to local residents and workers?

1. GIS workshop 1: Provide your name, etc. here for ESRI access code to ArcGIS:  (open with Google Sheets, not Excel)

What are the basic principles of Geospatial analysis? What types of visualizations facilitate spatial data analysis?  

Click here for PowerPoint Presentation with GIS Terminology

Data mining:

MapPLUTO 20v6

PLUTO Data Dictionary:

2. GIS Workshop 2: Collect GIS data that will help you understand your neighborhood:

Who are the locals? Demographics: education, income, ethnicity, age.

Are the people who populate the area residents, tourists, or workers? What kinds of workers?

What types of commercial activity exists in the area: food service, entertainment, office space, retail space, etc.

How much (and which parts) of the area are zoned for commercial vs. residential?

Access: what kinds of public transportation are available? Parking?

Is crime a problem? What about noise pollution?

3. GIS Workshop 3. Create a GIS map with a minimum of four layers that graphically display urban artifacts, infrastructure, demographics, zoning, etc. Each layer should include a labeled marker for the site of the theatre and a .5 mile radius buffer for the neighborhood. When choosing which datasets to include, you need to go beyond the examples discussed in class. Make assessments of the kinds of information you need for your particular project and use those datasets. Once you have pulled the data into your map, edit the symbology for effective, clear communication of the information.  

SUBMISSION: Take screenshots of four layers with legends. Post your screenshots on OpenLab (if you prefer, post a link to a shared document containing the images). This is an individual assignment — each student submits their own map. Your work will be assessed on the basis of 1) relevance to your project (theatre) and 2) clarity and strength of symbology to communicate the data. 

Act IV: PRESENTATION (synthesis)

The goal of the final presentation is to synthesize the information you gathered from in-person site visits, archival and secondary source research, and GIS modeling to answer this essential question: What kinds of plays or other live performance events would attract the local community to your theatre? You will also use knowledge you gained about historical stages and audiences to compose your conclusion. Your presentation will be made in teams of two.

Working with your teammate, export ArcGIS maps into a single Story Map. Design pages, continue perfecting symbology, include written analyses. Each team will create a single Story Map, drawing research, data and map layers from individual work in Acts I-III. 

Pages in Story Maps

  1. Title
  2. History: Exterior architecture (images and elevations)
  3. Interior: Stage arrangement and auditorium (images and plans)
  4. Neighborhood map with relevant projection of data (with legend)
  5. Neighborhood map with relevant projection of data (with legend)
  6. Neighborhood map with relevant projection of data (with legend)
  7. Neighborhood map with relevant projection of data (with legend)
  8. Interactive map for users (zoom, clicking on points, switching layers, etc.)
  9. Conclusion (critical thinking): Based on your analysis of the data, what kinds of plays and entertainments would attract the local community? Make your recommendation. Refer to historical examples when explaining your reasoning (you might use historical images to draw comparisons or images of your subject theater).
  10. Bibliography

When writing about a new Negro theatre during the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Dubois wrote in The Crisis

"The plays of a real Negro theatre must be: 1. 'about us.' That is, they must have plays which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. 'By us.' That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continued association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. 'For us.' That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. 4. 'Near us.' The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro peoples."

Essentially, you are applying this dictum to guide your analysis of a neighborhood. You need to provide the theatre company with information that will help them stage productions about, by, for, and near the people of the community. What kinds of plays, musicals and other performance forms will appeal to local residents and workers? What human and material resources might be available locally for producing new drama? For instance, if there is a relatively high density of families with children in the neighborhood (as compared to the demographic information about children in other parts of NYC) you would consider offering children’s theater. If there is a high hispanic population (as compared to the rest of the city), then you could consider producing plays by Latin American playwrights. What is the education level (as compared to the rest of the city) of residents? What about income? Economic data will help you think about ticket prices and production costs. How do education and income affect taste in performance styles? It will be helpful to think about historical examples. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was a commercial theater that played to a broad spectrum of classes in London. Why were those productions so successful in attracting audiences? The Little Theatre movement was non-profit. Who were the audiences of the Littler Theatre movement in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Paris? Vaudeville and other popular commercial forms appealed to working and middle-class audiences. Why? You need to find out what makes your particular neighborhood unique in terms of age, education, race, income, etc. (these are just some of the factors that will inform your research). There is no specific formula or data set that will work for all the projects. Every neighborhood is unique so the data that you use for your research will also be unique.

You must also consider the material conditions of the theater itself when conducting your analysis. Historically, certain types of stages and theaters have lent themselves to specific types of performances. Amphitheaters convey a sense of community and equality, black-box theaters have often been used to stage plays with political or social messages, stages that are generally bare and contain minimal technological support rely on language (rather than spectacle) to convey meanings. What kinds of stage arrangements and conditions support dance or musical performances? What kinds of auditoriums and stages lend themselves to audience participation? What kinds of performances require superior acoustic conditions? Why kinds of seating arrangements create class distinctions and how is class related to commercial theatre? We discussed the difference between profit and nonprofit. If you are a nonprofit, you do not rely on ticket sales (commercial success) to keep your theater running, which allows you some artistic freedom and perhaps a wider range of performance offerings. How do for-profit theaters manage to stay afloat?

Here is an (incomplete) list of plays/performances you might consider:

Greek tragedy
Religious rituals (speaking/singing/dancing) or sermons
Noh theatre
Puppet theatre
Dance concerts (be specific about type)
Music concerts (be specific about type)
Vaudeville (variety shows) or circus
Shakespeare plays
Brechtian theatre
Symbolist drama
Large-scale musicals
Chamber musicals (intimate musicals)
Plays that engage social issues
Children’s theatre