Small and midsized theater producers have formed the New Off-off Broadway Association (NOOBA) to tackle the growing list of challenges they face under today's strained economic conditions.

During two separate meetings on May 12 and18, a combined total of about 50 producers and artists gathered at the Ground Floor Theater, 312 West 11 St, to take the first steps in creating an organization through which issues of Off-off Broadway can be addressed.

The meetings were organized by Ben Hodges, the managing director of Fat Chance Productions.

"I felt a strong need for us to get together and discuss these issues because there is no outlet for us to communicate them," he said.

The aims of this new association will be two-fold: to bring about a hearing on issues surrounding the Showcase Code and other contracts with the Actors' Equity Association, and to act as a forum through which issues directly affecting the Off-off Broadway community can be heard.

Hodges was inspired to call the meeting after attending the Commercial Theatre Institute's 21st annual seminar for Broadway and Off-Broadway producers in April. At the seminar, he had raised a question to producer Kevin McCollum about the increasingly daunting task of producing Off-off Broadway theater given the current real estate market and the restrictions imposed by the Actors' Equity Association's Showcase code. Hodges' remarks were greeted by enthusiastic applause from over 300 attendees.

Problems with the Showcase code was one of the main issues discussed at both meetings. The code is a guideline set out by Actors' Equity that Off-off Broadway producers must follow if they wish to hire members of the association in their casts.

Limitations on ticket prices, the number of allowable performances and limited rehearsal hours were among the most contentious issues with the Showcase code. Other concerns included restrictions on remounting productions, differences in the code from city to city, and limitations on budgets, among others.

Participants at the meeting submitted that the maximum ticket price should be raised, and that runs and rehearsal hours should be extended. One attendee remarked that extending rehearsal hours would actually benefit actors because it gives them a greater chance of showcasing their best work on opening night.

The lack of affordable theatre space in the city was another major issue discussed. Under the current state of the real estate market, participants say it is getting more and more difficult for Off-off Broadway theaters to keep their doors open. Insurance rates have climbed since the events of 9/11, particularly for theaters located in downtown Manhattan.

Attendees stressed the need for real estate interests and elected officials to support arts groups and to facilitate their development. They suggested that newly vacant real estate could be used to provide theater space for artists in the downtown area.

In order to make the artists' voices heard, Hodges remarked it was important to reach out to as many Equity members as possible who shared the producers' views. He expressed the hope that Equity will realize that its own members are being adversely impacted by aspects of the Showcase code and also feel changes are necessary.

Hodges plans to attend a seminar on June 25 being sponsored by Theatre Resources Unlimited, a supportive network of producing organizations. He will be there representing NOOBA, as well as his own theater company, and encourages all interested parties to join him. Scheduled panelists at the seminar include Kathy Bruce, the Actors' Equity business representative for Showcase theater, and Donald Grody, an actor involved with the original Showcase Code development.

Hodges said NOOBA will also need to continue growing in numbers to increase its influence. All those interested in getting involved are encouraged to e-mail their contact information to ben@fatchanceproductions.org.

But most importantly, Hodges said Off-off Broadway artists must first learn to appreciate their own work before further steps can be taken,"If we want respect in the theater community, we first have to respect ourselves."

The name NOOBA is evocative of OOBA, the Off-off Broadway Alliance, which later morphed into Alliance of Resident Theater, or ART-NY. OOBA was an alliance formed in the late '70s during industry-wide discussions which led to Equity issuing its original Off-off Broadway code.