The Playgoer: Free Willikers (or, $hakespeare in the Park continued)

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Free Willikers (or, $hakespeare in the Park continued)

From the Public Theater website:

A Statement on Festival Seating Policy

Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free and distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis during designated hours on the day of the performance. 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. Tickets for contributors are reserved and are received in advance by mail. The policy of alternate row seating for contributors and non-contributors helps to preserve the democratic character of Delacorte Theater audiences.

What's the "democratic" part of that again? Are we concerned some seating sections won't have enough rich folk in them?

And is something wrong with my reading skills, or are they saying that it's the contributors who can't "wait in line" and that's why they get a special deal?

By the way, to refute what one earlier comment here suggested about simply subscribing to the Public to get a hold of tix...close, but not quite. As the website clearly spells out, subscribers get $50 off a "Summer Sponsorship" which, in turn, provides you with one free ticket to one of the park productions. How much is a Summer Sponsorship?
Summer Sponsors provide support for one of New York's most beloved summer traditions and help keep Shakespeare in the Park free for new generations. Summer Sponsors may reserve seats for select performances of Shakespeare in the Park for a contribution of $150 per seat. These reserved seats are available only as long as supplies last to assure that the highest number of free seats are available for the general public on the day of show.

So, yes, that's only $100 a seat if you're a subscriber--or, more specifically, only if you buy a "6-Play Package" for $240. (There are cheaper packages for fewer shows, but no summer weenie included.)

Six plays for $240 is not a bad deal, I agree. That's why I'm big on subscribing in general. (It's how I get to see amazing stuff at BAM for less than $30 a pop, after all.) But notice the only way to guarantee yourself a seat ("as long as supplies last") is to pay $340 for 7 plays--which gets us a lot closer to $50 a play, much more than $40.

Also, there are some mixed signals in the policy about how many tix Summer Sponsors actually can get. It's clear that your $100 or $150 entitles you only to one seat to one of the offerings. But if you follow the order form, it's also clear that as long as you can shell out four figures, you can order up to 10 tix for both shows. Where I come from that's called hogging. Yes, limited availability, I know. But if the first few individual Sponsors buy, effectively, 20 "Sponsorships" each...well, that's not fair to all the "little" sponsor, is it?

Look, I appreciate all the rhetoric (inserted at every line!) about how the few "generous" ones subsidize the "free" tickets to the masses for whom waiting hours in line is no big deal. Obviously someone has to "pay" for it all. (I thought the city and few corporate sponsors used to be enough?) But I think these data illuminate a gap between patrons that is not a little discomforting. And no matter how justified it may seem on paper, Mr. Eustis, it sure don't look too "democratic."

In conclusion...

There is no future for the theatre in free tickets. Theatre will always have to survive as a business, for profit or not. Even the fully subsidized theatres of Europe rely on income from ticket sales. The goal--the longterm goal--of subsidy and fundraising should be to keep tickets affordable for the rest, not to support occasional lavish giveaways. I worry that idealists like Eustis focus on untenable goals of free tickets (which will always come at some spiritual price and only increase class divisions, as seen above) instead of working to lure the working middle class back to the theatre with the kind of reasonable ticket prices that bracket can and will afford for something it deems worthwhile.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: What the average American playgoer needs is a good $30 theatre ticket.


Anonymous said...

30 is too much. 20 is ok.

Anonymous said...

isn't: "free moviestar" the real problem? liev isn't a movieSTAR (yet?).

went to the last week of Henry V 3 years ago, was walking around the area, there was no line. don't remember standing in line too long, 1.5/2 hours?. there were rows and rows of empty seats in the theater. in fact, it might have been the very last show of the run... note to self...

what were the shows last summer? who went to them? a john guare musical I think? how many empty seats do you think there were at those shows? i can't remember the summer of 2004 shows. what were they?

without the moviestar, they get no publicity. with them, disgruntled bloggers.

Anonymous said...

and don't forget that, obviously, each "star" gets many tickets and the star's assistant gets calls from famous people's assistants all day long. meryl has lots of famous friends who are not going to stand in line. so there are the freebies as well to factor into your equation...

so what is the percentage of free seats? 60%? 40%? it must change for each show, but you know in the beginning of the run there must be many, many seats that are "reserved".

another speculation: how many people standing in line are there for someone else who has to work or doesn't want to stand in line? doesn't the donation take these proxies out of the loop?

Anonymous said...

Eustis didn't institute the free tickets policy, so I'm ready to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's yet to carefully examine it.

That said, at this point the free approach (as opposed to $5 or $15 tickets)--combined as it is with a heavy dose of celebrity casting--achieves two things:

1) It allows The Public a unique opportunity to pat itself on the back for its benevolence, even as it fails to attract the working class audience (because they're too busy working to stand in line all day) for whom the program was designed.

2) It creates a mob scene, which is a rare chance for the Public's staff/funders/board to feel like they're at the center of the culture.

It's not hard to picture George C. Wolfe's ear-to-ear grin as he planned the 2001 production of The Seagull (with Meryl Street, Kevin Kline, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffmane, etc.) directed by Mike Nichols. "We'll have them camping out over night, I tell you!" he probably cackled.

That's a certain kind of democracy, I guess. But probably not what the Public should be shooting for.

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear! Shame on the Public for creating free theater with big stars that people want to see and pandering to the lowest common denominator by casting people like Streep and Walken. Let's have more productions at the Delacorte with LESS talented actors whom audiences DON'T want to see, and make them PAY for it.

It's pretty telling that the only people in high dudgeon about how undemocratic these tickets are are people who'd rather just pay for their seats.

Playgoer said...

Well, I knew I would not win many over by coming out against free theatre. But I hope people will still examine the Public's policies on this and ask some questions. For instance: is this a twice-a-year stunt, or does it really build new audiences?

For those who accuse me of elitism, I ask: is this really working? Or does it just make us feel good to give away a bunch of tickets to folks who COULD afford, at least $10 anyway.

And surely the increased, um, flexibility in giving away tickets to donors should raise some eyebrows, no?

I do concede, of course, not all the Delacorte shows demand huge waits in line. For the ones less celebrity driven, or less well reviewed, arriving 2 hours early on a lazy Sunday has sometimes been possible. I do know for a fact, though, that the Guare "Two Gents" last year did sell out reliably, despite middling reviews.

And as they give away a greater and greater percentage of tix to donors, the ability to get tickets on line will only get harder. Which leads me to my next question: how many seats ARE there in the Delacorte and how many are set aside for Corporate Sponsors, "Summer Sponsors", actor comps, etc.

As for the "star" issue, I'm not as concerned about that. Although I do hope the commenter is not simply equating fame with good acting. Anyone who sat through the Julia Styles "12th Night" a few years back knows what I mean!

Tom Loughlin said...

I would be curious to know if you wold feel the same way if people did not have to wait in line to get a free ticket or any ticket at all - just simply show up, spread a blanket on a lawn (no seats other than whay you bring yourself), and watch a show. We operate that way in Buffalo NY; have been for 31 years. We take a collection during the interval; no pressure, no requirement. Many people give a minimum $5, often we get far more (and far less). -twl