The Playgoer: Delacorte follow-up

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Delacorte follow-up

Much thanks to the spirited comments on my complaints over the theory and practice of the Public's Free Shakespeare in the Park. I suppose I should offer some more constructive criticism, rather than just taking down what the Public does. And I also might as well state the "glass-half-full" sentiment that it is (in the abstract, at least) a good thing that over 30,000 people will see a major production of "Mother Courage" for free this summer. I readily acknowledge that fact.

But it is worth continuing to question how the Public handles this great responsibility the city has given it, in leasing to them the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Since this arrangement apparently necessitates that 75% of the tickets are distributed at no charge to the general population, then charging anything--even a more ultimately democratic $15 for everyone--is probably not a realistic alternative, at least not without a complete renegotiation of the lease. Still, for those of us unsatisfied with how the ticket distribution currently works, there's plenty of room for thought experiments and other tinkering suggestions.

Reader "Cashmere," for instance, suggested the following:

Why wouldn't it make sense for The Public to go to TicketWeb, TicketCentral and the other local ticketing companies and let them bid on the opportunity to handle ticketing for the Delacorte shows? The Public could include the following caveats (among others):

A) Tickets need to be available by phone; over the internet; and in-person in all five boroughs.

B) The service charge per ticket would have to be $1 or less, payable by cash or credit card.

C) Some sort of non-transferability screening process would have to be
implemented to avoid scalping.

As an enticement, The Public could offer to put the logo of the ticketing vendor on all the Shakespeare in the Park posters.Wouldn't one of these companies bite--if only for the press/publicity value? If they did, the upshot would be $1 tickets, without the lines.

I personally like the idea of "mixing & matching" more, offering a variety of ways of getting tickets. Some handed out "day of," some reservable over phone/online, some by lottery. I mean, with 1880 seats a night, seems like there's room for diverse approaches.

(Of course, one objection I anticipate to "reservations" is that people notoriously don't show up for them if it didn't cost them anything. From the Public's view, one good thing about the present system is that the odds of someone not showing up to the show that night after waiting twelve hours in line are very slim. It certainly does require commitment.)

I'm grateful to "Y.S." for reminding us what true "Shakespeare in the Park" is supposed to be like:
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company here in Boston draws thousands to its free performances on the Common, with nary a "star" name on the bill in its entire history. The best part is that no ticket is needed at all.
Yes, we all like to camp out in the park for a free performance. But we like to spontaneously congregate, settle in for a nice picnic dinner at 6pm, not am. The whole appeal of such a summer play concert is the informality, and the feeling of welcomeness. While--as I said earlier--the Public staff is as hospitable as they can be under the circumstances, those lining up at the Delacorte are quite frankly herded. Fine, escorted. If you're there overnight, for instance, did you know you're kicked out of the park at midnight, when Central Park officially closes, and then woken up at dawn to be walked back in? (So if you were planning on a nice rustic camping trip on the green, get ready to sleep on the sidewalk of Central Park West.) Then if you're lucky to get your ticket at 1pm, you then still have seven hours before the show starts, just enough time to catch a nap and a proper meal, to be well rested for a 3 1/2 hour Brecht play.

Here's another proposal: what if they handed out tickets at 5pm, not 1pm. Sure, some would still camp out overnight, but not as many. That would shift the line later, so you'd still have a shot if you showed up in daylight. As for missing a full day of work--well, the 1:00 schedule doesn't help much with that unless your job is an afternoon waiter shift, and a short one.... Or, fine, hand out the tickets at 9am, so people can go back to work. This question of timing should be an easy one to address and could make a real difference, at least for the more popular shows.

It should be said there is one population for whom the current system works fine--unemployed theatre artists! (Or those waiting tables.) And, no doubt, they make up most of the line. The Public is serving this constituency well, at least, and that's great.

But here again we see how the current system is tailored to everyone but the middle class. And forgive me for coming to the defense of those poor bourgeois, but shouldn't they be an important segment of the theatre audience, too? Not just the super "bo-bo" sponsors, but just folks with jobs (and kids) who happen to love the theatre, and can't afford to shell out $150 a pop.

Look, maybe nothing we say here will get the Public to change, and there are far worse things than 30,000 seeing Mother Courage for free. But I do think it's valuable to have some alternative voices heard amidst all the romanticizing about the Delacorte experience--mostly by people who don't have that experience first hand. (After all, if you're in the press and you're writing about this, chances are you have press tickets.) Has Oskar Eustis, for instance, waited on line himself lately?... So I'm happy to provide a forum for those who have a different perspective.

Commenter "D.B." claims I'm overreacting to basically an inconvenience, which is worth the sacrifice for a greater cause:
If we're concerned about the future of theater and its ability to develop an audience, shouldn't we be more concerned about that?
But I guess what keeps me kvetching this developing new audiences? Where are all these working class audiences of color at the Delacorte? I find myself surrounded there by all the same white folks I see at every play. (Usually just less informed.) Granted, they do trend younger. But are they also following up by buying tickets to other shows? Or is Shakespeare in the Park for them just another yearly ritual stunt? All I'll say is the audiences these days over at the Signature, where it's $15 a ticket across the board, are a much more diverse mix.

DB also argues:
...scraping together $200 for a pair of tickets to a Broadway show (or $120 for a pair of tickets to an off-Broadway play) is beyond what many people can do, and favors--as does almost every cultural event in New York--people who have money over people who have time.
We agree on that: those of us waiting on line are indeed paying, paying with our time. And as that time increases over the next week from a mere five hours to twelve, I think we're right to ask what our time is worth.

(Especially if the performance itself does not deliver. But that's for another time...)


Anonymous said...

You're right. Fifteen dollar tickets, half price for children and seniors, with maybe a lottery in each borough if there's high demand, would be much more sensible. Who can afford to queue for 12 hours? Certainly not the less affluent, who have to work long hours and tend to live further from downtown manhattan. Perhaps two hundred free tickets can be kept at the door each night, for those who still prefer to queue -

The Playgoer said...

Thank you, Anon. I would be great to see the Public think "out of the box" (even a box as romantically irresistible as "free theatre") and indulge in the kind of creative thinking you lay out.

Should be said, though, in their defense, they do indeed have select ticket handouts in other buroughs. Of course, it's only one day for each production. Details here:

And by the way, anyone one still doubts the problems of class stratification in the Public's current thinking need only look again at that phrase "those who cannot wait in line" on their stated ticket policy, which I can now say with confirmation that I am not misreading. (