The Playgoer: No Free Lunch, No Free Theatre

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Monday, June 12, 2006

No Free Lunch, No Free Theatre

The NY Sun today takes an overdue big-picture view of the rationale behind the Public's version of free summer Shakespeare in the Park.

For one thing, did you know that one of every four seats in the Delacorte now goes to paying corporate sponsors?

"Our goal, and what we state, is that 75% of the tickets are free, and 25% are ultimately held by the sponsors," the Public Theater's executive director, Mara Manus, said. "So 25% pay for 75% to attend for free."
Okay, I get the message. If we don't reserve a quarter of the seats for "the money" then no free Shakespeare for nobody, see? But I'm just glad it's on the record now. Let's remember that when we're giving up a vacation day to camp out on the sidewalk at 4am.

My growing personal conviction about this is, no more "free" culture.

Warning: this is about to get very snobby and elitist. Reader discretion advised.

When you go to a lot of arts events around the city--lectures, symposiums, afternoon concerts--you realize there is a certain population that turns out for anything "free." Not that they don't appreciate culture. But they're there because it's free more than because of what it is. (And if there's any hint of "reception to follow" forget about it.)

Shakespeare in the Park is the ultimate, the Mount Everest in this category--especially when it's a celebrity event like "The Seagull" a few years back. As I sat there on the pavement, lined up amongst tents and sleeping bags, I thought: is this really "free"? Look at the efforts so many have gone to, the trials we must endure to nab two of these prized tickets? Giving up sleep, a day of work, a proper bathroom...I would be willing to pay the price of a ticket to be spared this humiliation. Especially when the corporate sponsors--and, let's face it, their friends and family who aren't shelling out the bucks directly--don't have to bother. So what was meant as "democratic" has turned into this weird Roman-era spectacle of class division--bring your own bread and Shakespeare will provide the circus.

This summer I don't look forward to going through the whole mess again to see Meryl Streep in the George Wolfe/Tony Kushner Mother Courage. This will be a major production I would gladly pay upwards of $50-75 for, as long as it meant I was guaranteed a seat. Even if it was the one show I saw all month. So I don't feel the Public is doing me any favor.

The celebrity factor only worsens things, of course. With "The Seagull" you had to wonder at some point--have some of these Natalie Portman fans even heard of Chekhov? Do they care? Sure, they're getting "exposed" to the play... but you can only hope they followed up by reading and seeing more of him. How disappointed so many of the Streep fans will be this time to see her uglied up in rags in a Brechtian anti-war musical.

Here's an idea: how about the Public forgets "free" and calls it "Five Dollar Shakespeare in the Park." And they announce one date when all tickets go on sale, both at the box office and on-line. I'll take those odds any day over spending a night as a bum in the park only to find out the family of eight in front of me took the last tickets....It would also be interesting to see if it would turn away those who have nothing but time on their hands and only show up when something is "free". (The people who see a line and ask "What are they giving away!")

Of course, I'm all for "exposure", for bringing theatre to those who can't pay for tickets. But is putting them through this helping? (especially when they have to work for a living) Is it helping them make a habit of going to the theatre? Or, god forbid, is this what they fear it will always be like!

Charging some money would meet with outrage, of course, over straying from their mission. But I say charging everyone--and I mean everyone--$5-10 a ticket (with as much control as possible over bulk buying and scalping, of course) is the only way to make it truly democratic...Plus there's the notion of some commitment to what you're seeing. As the Sun article shows, City Center has the right idea:

On a more deliberate level, City Center's Fall for Dance festival, a week of mixed bill performances, is not free - but almost. Tickets are $10, thanks in large part to the Peter J. Sharp Foundation and Time Warner. "We decided we would charge something but make it so low that it wouldn't prohibit anybody from coming," City Center's president and CEO, Arlene Shuler, said. "The price of tickets was less than the price of a movie. We wanted people to make a commitment to seeing dance, and hopefully make a commitment to seeing dance, going forward."

It appears to be working. Surveys found that 30% of the Fall for Dance
audience is under the age of 30. In the second year of the festival, 41% of the
audience said they had seen more dance that year, as a result of having gone to
Fall for Dance.

Nick Hytner had the same idea at The Royal National Theatre and found the sponsorship to enable Ten-Pound tix for select shows and periods--to equally great success. Requiring the audience to put down just a little cash--and not requiring them to go through some trial by ordeal--ensures that a great play can be enjoyed as a professional performance and not a freakshow.

Addendum: Kudos should also go to our own Signature Theatre Company in NYC for engineering a $15 flat-rate ticket, with the help of funders.

1 comment:

corin said...

On balance I think I agree with this point of view. I'd like to get to see more West End theatre, but find the tickets prohibitively expensive, so only see it rarely. On the other hand, I do see plenty of Fringe (where tickets tend to be about £7, give or take). And, as anyone who goes to a lot of Fringe knows, the cheap tickets aren't exactly drawing in the crowds!