The Playgoer: Bravo, Charles Isherwood

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bravo, Charles Isherwood

Of course the headliner in today's Arts & Leisure is the up-close-and-impersonal with Mr. Pinter, a must-read.

But check out also Isherwood's very comprehensive and thought provoking essay on the New York theatre's gradual acknowledgement of and steps toward mitigating our crisis of the ticket-price.

Now I have said on this site many times that I don't think that cheaper tickets are a cure-all to the problem of fostering a younger generation of theatregoers. But certainly it's a component. And the chances of hooking new audiences once they do find an interest in theatre will be easier if the financial investment is not so high.

Now I pride myself on rarely paying more than $40 for a ticket. But that's because I'm on countless email lists, memberships, and other discount categories. (Not to mention a subscriber to some theatres.) Isherwood offers the excellent reminder that this is a bandaid and doesn't address the real problem:

There have long been various programs aimed at making mainstream theater accessible to wider audiences at lower prices. The Theater Development Fund’s TKTS booth (where a half-price ticket to the back row can now cost more than $50, including service charges) is the most prominent, but the organization also offers other ticket discounts to members. Most major not-for-profit theaters have student outreach programs or discount offers for younger theatergoers. But they tend to focus on audiences already actively interested in theater. You have to know what the Theater Development Fund is to seek out its bargains, just as you have to be a regular visitor to the many theater-related Web sites that have discount-ticket offers to take advantage of them.

So Isherwood rightly points to the Signature Theatre experiment soliciting corporate subsidies to mark down all tickets as a watershed moment. "The Signature initiative simplified the process, taking the work out of it," he says. "Instead of signing up for a program or visiting a theater’s Web site, all you had to do was buy a ticket." (And it is a subsidy: tickets for Iphigenia 2.o, for instance, clearly label it as a "$65 ticket less $45 subsidy." It's almost like Time Warner is paying me $45 to go see it! Call it a "challenge grant," I guess)

More than the increases in younger audiences, maybe the most heartening stat the Signature gave Isherwood is: "The number of attendees with annual income of less than $50,000 grew by 25 percent." Seems like rather obvious logic. But good to prove that it works. And that our theatres need not be enclaves of just the wealthier classes. For ticket buying is a form of clout. So even though the richest patrons may continue to exert influence on the board and upper management, all those under-$50 grand attendees can now have a voice, too, in the programming of a theatre.

But remember: "The reduced-ticket initiative was relatively easy at the Signature because it produces just three shows a season at a 160-seat house." And, at usually fewer than eight shows a week, on one of the lower-rung Off-Broadway contracts, at that. So how such strategies can translate to bigger companies is an open question. Isherwood interviews both Roundabout's Todd Haimes and Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop on what their hopes are. Haimes is proud of finally getting "aggressive" with their lowering of "Hiptix" tickets, offering more 1st night cheap seats, and adding a blackbox space at $20 a pop, for subscribers and newbies alike. ("The company decided to start the program immediately, rather than wait to get a corporate sponsor," Isherwood adds.) Bishop meanwhile is much more cautious--and limited by the complex "membership" system at LCT, where they are technically sold out in advance most of the time. And their student-discount program, as noted, is even more complicated, forcing you to get on some magic "list" way ahead of time, otherwise, whether or not everyone on the list uses those tickets, you're out of luck. Not exactly encouraging of that average young single-ticket buyer who might want to check out that new Sarah Ruhl or Christoper Shinn play. (Though LCT did do more outreach than I've ever seen on those two shows. Plus, Bishop reiterates their plan to build a new third space solely for new plays.)

So while there's no way for these big B'way-size companies to mark down all their seats, I suddenly had the thought: what about just the balcony? The idea occurred to me when Isherwood started pointing out the ahead-of-the curve thinking going on in classical music and dance:
The Met also reduced its cheapest tickets to $15 from $25 last season. New York City Ballet did the same, halving the price of its cheap seats, to $15 from $30. Sales tripled.

Currently, the balcony at a Broadway house (even at the nonprofit Roundabout & Manhattan Theatre Club theatres) averages well above $50. The experience many novice ticketbuyers have in such overpriced bad seats at a middling show does more harm to the future artform perhaps than anything else. (The feeling of lack of value for your money is the most irreparable kind of damage.)

So what about a commitment to a $25 of even $30 top in the balcony? I bet it would not take much more of a financial subsidy than the one Time Warner currently gives Signature. And while, yes, the seats are sometimes too far back for certain shows, at least people would accept the risk for the price. There always were great "balcony shows" in the history of Broadway, plays so original or subversive that they turned off the high-rollers downstairs, but solicited ovations from the common folk in the rafters. For all the class division, it would not be bad first step toward restoring some kind of class balance to the theatre.

While those shows currently selling out at the current prices may feel no incentive, it's certainly a worthy investment in the future of Broadway to populate the balcony with enthusiastic and diverse peoples of all ages, rather than the often disgruntled, confused, and frankly gypped patrons stuffed into those little seats right now.

3 comments:

Alisa said...

All excellent points, and glad to see Isherwood take this on. HOWEVER, once again the NYT discusses the high cost of theater production in NYC without including the exorbitant price of adverstising in the NYT! I didn't see Isherwoode recommend, for example, some underwriting for appearances in the NYT's listings.

August said...

You might be interested in checking out TCG's program, Free Night of Theater, which takes a more national approach to raising awareness of theatre and trying to remove the ticket price barrier. Particularly interesting is the demographic and return rate data, showing that these kind of programs can be useful in reaching out to non-traditional theatre communities and retaining them as audience members:
http://www.tcg.org/events/freenight/2007/2006Overview.cfm

The Playgoer said...

Point certainly taken, Alisa. NYT's ad space remains the real exclusive club for both theatre producers & audiences.

Still, it was encouraging to see such an article only a day after a front-page piece about the woes of shopping for a $30,000 couch!