The Playgoer: Shakespeare in the Park: By The Numbers

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Shakespeare in the Park: By The Numbers

In the midst of my ranting about the inequities and mixed messages of the Public Theatre's "Free Shakespeare in the Park" policies, I emailed their press office with the following questions:
1) How many seats are in the Delacorte Theatre?
2) How many seats per performance are given away for free at 1pm each day, as opposed to how many given to individual and corporate "Sponsors"?
3) On your website ( you say: "To help underwrite production expenses and to make it possible for those who cannot wait in line to attend the theater, a specific (but limited) number of seats in alternate rows are made available to contributors for each performance." Can you clarify who are the people you are referring to who "cannot wait in line"?

Earlier this week (after yet another rant) I received a response from Public press rep Sam Neuman, and I had a brief follow-up phone call with him where he answered the questions and made the Public's case. So here is that case.

The Delacorte has 1880 seats. Which is larger than I guessed--larger than most Broadway houses. The City of New York (as a provision of its support for the program) demands that at least 75% (so, 1410) of those be made available for free to the public each performance. So that leaves the large-P Public 25% (470 tickets) each night to do with as it pleases. According to Neuman, the theatre does not always hold onto all of those, and so gives some of those away as well.

So, the main point is, there is indeed a cap on how many "Sponsor" tickets can be sold. According to the June 12 NY Sun piece I previously linked to, that number is 6,000 over the entire summer, out of a total of 90,240 available tickets. (For those of you playing at home, that's 48 performances--2 productions, each with 4-week runs of 6 shows a week--times 1880 seats.) Put like that, the Sponsors don't seem to cutting that much into the total available tickets.

The number of Sponsor tickets reserved for each night is different so it's hard to generalize about the effect day to day. But the average of 6,000 spread over 48 performances would be 125 seats a night. So that means some nights there are less. Some more. I could still maintain that if you're a hundred people too far back in line one day, you know who to thank.

Neuman also clarified that the Public has other needs for those 470 seats, such as press and actor/artist comps. And, of course, some are set aside for other categories of donors and corporate support. According to the Sun's Kate Taylor:

Through another program dubbed Delacorte Investors, companies can donate money to reserve blocks of seats and, for an additional donation of $15,000 or more, entertain in the backstage area before the show. This year, the major sponsors including Google Book Search, Barnes & Noble, CBS Outdoor, and Time Warner Cable.
I noticed what must have been such an "entertainment area" on may way to my seat at second preview, a little outdoor reception set-up of white folding chairs. (What would Brecht say about "culinary theatre" now!)

It's interesting (and I guess helpful) that the Mother Courage page on the Public's website has taken the step of alerting people to nights that will be particularly donor-heavy:
Please note that there will be limited ticket distribution for the following performances: August 15, August 21, August 31 and September 3. For information about the special benefit performance and welcome evening for new partners, please click here.
When you do click "here" you get basically an invitation to attend the August 15th show by joining at the $1500, $1000, or $500 levels. I'm not sure whether "limited ticket distribution" in this case means fewer than the stipulated 75%, and that even more seats are "special" at these performances than usual. At least they're warning us. (And that's especially important for September 3, since that's the closing night!)

In fact--I'd prefer it if the Public packed all their sponsors and donors into a few pre-selected nights and gave away no tickets to those, so the rest of us could stay home. Let them do their fundraising (donor "cultivation"), but do it in a few gala benefit nights. I have no problem with that. Especially if it means more free tickets for the days when people are waiting in line.

Finally, as to my question of "who are the people you are referring to who 'cannot wait in line'?"... I asked Neuman if perhaps this referred to the infirm or handicapped. To his credit, he admitted surprise and embarassment over the language, which does indeed refer to the Sponsors. Perhaps they'll change the wording now. (How about "those who cannot send their personal assistants to wait in line for them"?) Still, that the outlook of the culture of fundraising found its way in there so nakedly is revealing.

As for the actual infirm, Neuman pointed out that they do indeed have separate, shorter, lines for the elderly and disabled. But how about considering some pre-ordering for those populations? And how about school children in summer school?

I also asked how long this whole Sponsor program has been around, since I've only noticed it this year. I always assumed big donors got in, maybe even premium subscribers. But I don't remember such an obvious, easy quid-pro-quo of money for tickets. The Public claims such offers go back to the Papp years, but there's definitely been an increase. According to the Sun:
Papp laid the foundations for this form of support; a program called Summer Sponsors offered individuals the opportunity to donate $150 for a reserved seat. When Ms. Manus took over as executive director in 2002, she sought to emphasize the program as a means of rebuilding attracting donors.
"We realized that, with the loss of certain corporate support, we need to ramp this up," Ms. Manus [executive director Mara Manus] said. "Within two years of really aggressively marketing it, we now have reached the point where last year we sold out, and this year we're going to sell out."
I imagine in the past this was more word-of-mouth amongst rich people. But the new "aggressive" approach means it's in the print-ads for the shows, and also this convenient online order form. More democratic? I suppose. For those with $150 to spare, I guess.

In sum, I appreciate Neuman and the Public's response. And I believe Eustis & co. are sincere in doing all this creative fundraising in service of the New York Shakespeare Festival's historic mandate. So what's my beef? It is better all this is out in the open and transparent. And I know I should not reflexively assume fundraising is evil. Without further government endowment, someone has to pick up the tab for proessional theatre. As Manus says, "25% pay for 75% to attend for free."

But I also think this all needs to be taken into account whenever Eustis or anyone else waxes about how wonderful and democratic the event is. There clearly is special treatment for a large number of those who are privileged, much larger than I ever imagined. 25% is still a small portion, they'd say. But, remember, that's one out of four. (Or, allowing for the actor comps, let's say one out of five.) And would we be surprised if the Public finds a way to renegotiate that agreement with the city one day to increase that portion to 1/3rd?

The prevailing image of the Delacorte shows, though, remains a charitable summer ritual. (Cf. this rosy dispatch from the front lines of the front of the line at Astor Place.) Sure it's fun to have a picnic with fellow theatre lovers. But when you have to get there at 6am, or earlier, when it's on the hard pavement of Astor Place (or of Central Park West when they kick you out of the park at night)'s no picnic. Not to mention, missing a day of work, or of your life.

I know I sound like a crank who had a bad experience in line. I actually didn't. As always, the Public staff are courteous and first-rate at the crowd control. They set a very orderly atmosphere and work very early and long hours. Aside from some annoyingly loud Go Fish players next to me, the patrons were pleasant company. And I got my two tickets after a mere five hours. And, as verteran concertgoers and Star Wars fans will tell me, they routinely wait in line for longer, and still have to pay!

But let's be real. If I had $300 I would have bought them, without any regret over missing the "sense of community" at all. And if I had $1000 I could have gotten my "community," too at my 6:00 "Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres" pre-show reception. I'm sorry, but to pass that on the way in after getting no sleep to wait outside on a hot New York summer day, is to be reminded of all the class-stratification that is killing our theatre.

Two last thoughts.

One, I feel like this is the nonprofit version of Broadway's "Premium" tickets--the $450 house seats producers started marketing to compete with scalpers. We all gasped at first, but it's now a longstanding success. They found plenty of takers! Even though that's in the commercial sphere and for commercial product, people were right to protest that move. Why not this.

Yes, I know the answer is that this is a "donation," and to a good cause at that. Not to line Oskar Eustis' pockets. But at some point we have to ask, what is the cause any more? Today it's 25% pay for 75%. Tomorrow, one half will pay for the have-nots.

Two, let's face something. This is only a problem when Meryl Streep is involved! The last time the lines were this bad was for The Seagull. (Anyone who camped out for Julia Styles in Twelfth Night I don't feel sorry for.) The lesson is not Meryl Streep should stay home, of course. But it's worth reflecting on how the "celebrity" factor only brings out the most undemocratic aspects of this. I know Eustis defends the casting of "great actors" fame notwithstanding. And he's right. Streep, Kevin Kline, Liev Schreiber... they all should be on our stages. But I would respect the enterprise more if the lure of free tickets was employed in a better cause. People will always be glad to pay to see big names. (As someone commented here, this "Mother Courage" should be having a nice long run at a theatre big with an affordable balcony section of good visibility.) But they don't pay to see young talented actors they've never heard of. That's who Shakespeare in the Park should be showcasing.

If the need for fundraising is so great, doesn't that have something to do with the reliance on celebrity casting and giving A-list directors all the bells and whistles they want? If you cut the costs, cut the fundraising, and focus on the art, I bet people would still come for free. That would be a true community event. Instead of the import of Hollywood buzz. The Public is thrilled to see people camping out around the block not so much for the good time in store for those theatre lovers, but because it raises the profile of the theatre. Which leads to more fundraising. Which enables more celebrities doing Shakespeare in the Park. Which leads to even longer lines. Which prompts more people to buy those Sponsorships so they don't have to wait in line. And so on...

All I can say is, try it yourself. Go to Mother Courage and tell me how you think it's exemplifying the Public's stated "philosophy of inclusion."


Anonymous said...

Congrats, Playgoer. You did some REPORTING and you got good, useful info from the Public Theater, which you presented fairly. (Now that wasn't so hard, was it?)

Yes: class stratification in our theater -- but how about in OUR SOCIETY, OUR COUNTRY? Isn't that where the real problem lies?

Funny you didn't mention anything about class in your non-review review of MC since there seems to be a pretty obvious tie-in there. (At least I'm HOPING George hasn't buried the economics/class consciousness of the play.)

Anonymous said...

1) Yes--there is class stratification in our society. Does that mean we shouldn't hold a non-profit, city-supported organization like the Public to a different/higher standard?

Institutions like the Public are supposed to work to undermine the importance of those distinctions (it's in their mission statement for crying out loud) or at least attempt to blur them. The theatre's leaders should think long and hard before launching programs that seem to further that stratification.

The Sun article and Playgoer's reporting suggest that The Public could afford to think a little longer and harder.

2) Here's another stab at a better Shakespeare in The Park ticketing scheme:

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.

The Public would have to swallow hard and abandon the "free Shakespeare" concept, granted. But wouldn't the trade-off be worth it? Is anyone ready to argue that this scenario would be worse (from the perspective of inclusiveness, respect for the audience, etc.) than the current approach?

Anonymous said...

1. Jeez. doc. Dont' take my head off. Yes, of course "non-profits" should think better and do better. It might help us figure out how they can do so by seeing the ways they unselfconsciously reflect and perpetuate the society's prevailing values. A little contextual analysis makes us better thinkers, less myopic.

2, Best solution: Abolish capitalism. :)

Anonymous said...

Playgoer, you say "The lesson is not Meryl Streep should stay home, of course....But [people] don't pay to see young talented actors they've never heard of. That's who Shakespeare in the Park should be showcasing."

Come on. You can't have it both ways. Do you really want the Delacorte's productions to be populated by young that sponsors will be less that there will be more free tickets that a system that you think is bad anyway would be a little better? You're talking yourself into a corner here. There are plenty of unknowns in the Mother Courage cast. Which "young talented unknown" exactly did you have in mind to play the title role of Mother Courage? Personally, I'd rather see Meryl Streep.

And this "cut the fundraising, focus on the art" line is just silly. There are people at the Public who do one thing, and people who do the other, just like at any theater. And the people who concentrate on the fundraising make it easier for artists to concentrate on the art. And you know this already! Is this really the most distressing issue in New York theater right now?

Anonymous said...

Streep, perhaps unusually, is a star because she is a GREAT ACTOR. And here is a BIG CHALLENGING ROLE for a MATURE FEMALE ACTOR -- also an unusual thing. That's why she'd want to do it -- and why she's a most excellent choice for the role. Anon. is right on.

Larissa said...

but anonymous, in the first years of Shakespeare in the park, even after the Delacorte was built, it was already a very popular venture, even though Papp wasn't yet casting celebs in the productions. In fact, Most of Streep's roles with the Public were before she became a big star: her 1976 Measure for Measure and Henry V, 1978's Taming of the Shrew....she was an unknown except to savvy New york theatre audiences, and people came. You don't need stars of the magnitude she is now (or for that matter, Schreiber or Julia Stiles for goodness' sake) to attract enough people to ensure Shakespeare in the Park's success. hundreds of people camping out in front of the Delacorte or on Lafayette street to see a movie star for "free" and being turned away doesn't seem like a mark of success to me. If only half those people came because the word on the street was that the productions were really good despite being cast with (extremely talented) nobodies, they'd still fill the theatre every night and we wouldn't have this big undignified situation witht the tickets and those long sad lines.

Anonymous said...

you're right, larissa. but the point is, streep is a great choice for mother courage. why SHOULDN'T we have a chance to see her in this role? it's an extremely demanding role for a middle-aged woman. chances are, somebody good enough and old enough to pull off the role would be someone that people have heard of before. this aint no ingenue part (thank god).

Playgoer said...

To clarify-- I have nothing against good actors who happen to be celebrities. Yes, Streep should be doing parts like Mother Courage. No, lesser known actresses would not necessarily be better.

But I second Larissa in emphasizing how the Delacorte Productions actually used to have a great history of introducing NEW talent (making some stars in the process). The Delacorte shows didn't used to be the "showpiece" of the Public--in fact they used to have reputation of being wildly uneven.

Isn't it funny then that today, with more consistent celebrity casting, the shows are considered...wildly uneven.

Because the tickets are free, it's a great way to induce people to come out and see non-celebrities for a change. Emphasizing celebrity casting in the summer--no matter how great the actors are--only invites the zoo we're witnessing now.

And, no, this is not the greatest crisis facing NY theatre. But right now, it's the main event on the scene, and it's certainly worth taking the opportunity to examine it critically.

Anonymous said...

Aren't there plenty of young unknowns in this cast of Mother Courage?

And isn't casting perfectly qualified stars like Streep and Kline a completely appropriate way to A) bring audiences into a difficult, great and relatively infrequently produced play and B) allow them, once in, to see some younger actors of whom they may not have heard?

And how is a long line a "zoo"? What, exactly, would be the right number of people in line to make it not a zoo? Just as many people as there are seats in the theater?

And how exactly should the Public calibrate the exact balance between kinda interesting and not very interesting to make sure the line isn't too long?

And didn't the Public do exactly the kind of showcasing of young talent you're talking about in last year's Two Gentlemen of Verona?

There seems to be some kind of grudgy feeling here that the Public is "off mission". But I don't think the critics here are making the case.

Larissa said...

Hey, a line is a zoo when you have to get there by 7:45 in the morning to ensure you're one of the few hundred who will get a 'free' ticket (good thing time isn't money in NYC) when they start handing them out at 2pm.

Anonymous said...

But that's not a zoo. It may be an ordeal, or difficult for some people, and something that some people may just not be able to do, but it's not chaos or anarchy or undemocratic. It's a system that favors people who have time over people who have money. And it's a system that asks people who aren't used to having to give something valuable up to do just that.

But by the same token, 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. If we're concerned about the future of theater and its ability to develop an audience, shouldn't we be more concerned about that?

Larissa said...

but thats the point--if I make $15 an hour (which is actually more per hour than most of that "elusive young audience" makes, especially if we're talking about students or recent graduates), then standing in line for 7 hours is akin to spending $105. That wouldn't be more objectionable than normal (as in the normal objectionability of theatre tickets being so expensive), except the Public is busy patting itself on the back for offering these "free" tickets. It doesn't favor people who have money over people who have time, because time is money, especially in a city as expensive as New York. Spending seven hours on a ticket to Shakespeare in the Park is not so different from spending $105 on a ticket to a BRoadway show, whether or not one feels the line is "zoo"-like or not.

Art said...

To Playgoer's defense--

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.

It is truly inspiring to see the enthusiasm.

The Huntington Theatre Company is offering a special ticketing policy for its premiere of Radio Golf. When tickets go on sale this Thursday, all tickets, all locations will be only $25.00. The details are on the website.

Perhaps somebody can follow up and see with the Huntington how the policy goes.

Playgoer said...

DB is right that I shouldn't have used the word "zoo." The Delacorte line is nothing if not orderly. And, as I make a point to keep repeating, the staff thoroughly professional and courteous.

What I meant is, indeed, that it is (as DB characterizes my beef) an "ordeal." I like that word better. Didn't we abolish Trial By Ordeal back in the Middle Ages...?

Anonymous said...

I really thought you were a little "complainy." I mean, its great to investigate how this really works and I was always curious as to how many sponsors. But art does have to be fundraised. It costs money to run an outdoor theatre and have equity actors. staff, publicity.

And yes, some of us might be able to scrounge up $100 for a ticket but some aren't. It's a pain waiting, but I had a class taught by Oskar and its really the spirit of it that counts. We're lucky they can arrange it so that the sponsors take up as few tickets as they do.