The Playgoer: The Public's Hard Sell

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Monday, August 21, 2006

The Public's Hard Sell

OK, I'm really, really trying hard not to sound like a conspiracy theorist on this. But bear with me.

Just yesterday I reported on the Times running a detailed article Sunday on what it's like to wait on line for Mother Courage tickets. Then, minutes, after I posted that, I heard the Times radio station digest the story, highlighting the frantic bidding for scalped tickets for CraigsList.

So imagine the eerie feeling I had opening my inbox this morning, when I get a message from the Times' "TicketWatch"--a recent internet advertising service by the paper, often offering ticket discounts via email--promoting what else but the Public's $150 Summer Sponsorships!

So whether coordinated or not, the message to NY Times readers, WQXR listeners, and TicketWatch subscribers (the perfect nexus of the well-to-do NYC cultural audience) is clearly: "You've heard about the massive lines. And the scalping. Now here's how you really get a ticket, and write it off!"

I understood that the Public was ramping up its promotion of the sponsorships this year. And it's appeared in some print ads for the Delacorte shows. But this email blast is the most aggressive I've seen. I was also surprised because the Public press office told me, when I asked how the sponsorships were selling that they had almost none left. That was two weeks ago.

It's possible then that the purpose of this campaign at this late date (the show end September 3) is not so much to raise money for this year as to plant this in the minds of those who can afford it for next year. In other words, this is becoming a fixture. And--to judge from the ad and from the fact yesterday's article didn't mention them--people still don't generally know about these sponsorships. Just what will happen when the demand for these gets high? Especially if the Public ratches up the star quotient and keeps raising the buzz profile of the productions even more. And, at this point, the have every incentive to do so. And so on, and so on.

On the one hand, you certainly can't accuse them of keeping this a secret. The transparency is there. But still, I still think there's a lot to question on the principles of the whole enterprise, even though I seem to still be out on a limb on this one.

Think about this, for instance: the drive to sell more sponsorships is a drive to raise more money for the shows. In other words, to raise the budget. Yes, the cost of doing any large cast professional show in NYC is getting higher and higher. But it's clear from watching the last few years of shows that we have more high-salaried stars on stage and more toys for directors to play with. (Both elements came together most memorably watching a miscast Julia Stilles negotiate her way down Brian Kulick's inexplicable "Twelfth Night" waterslide.)

Yes, good actors sometimes are famous and need to be paid well. Yes, I'm for directorial freedom. But have we forgotten the simple fact that Shakespeare's original outdoor theatre had no scenery? Has the irony totally escaped us of, in the present case, a fundraising frenzy over a work by the man who is one of the heroes of "poor theatre"? (Not to mention a dire foe of capitalism.) The Public has taken it as a given that the budget for the Delacorte shows must keep rising because of a programming decision--an artistic decision--to produce lavish commercial-worthy shows there. If they remembered Joe Papp's initial spirit of doing Shakespeare in the Park out of a truck, maybe they wouldn't have to hawk so many $150 "indulgences" by luring the wealthy with the promise of not having to sweat in line with the rest of us, and then an extra 200 or so people might be able to get in each night for free.

By the way, the show itself officially opens tonight. Which makes this confluence of marketing and hype building no coincidence. Funny how the reviews will matter now. In the past, the Public stood to make no profit anyway, so they had no financial impact. But you can bet that folks contemplating putting down $150 a seat will check them out. Fingers are crossed, no doubt, in the development office over there. (Worth pointing out here the price is only $100 for those who subscribe to the whole season.)

Meanwhile, here's the text of the TicketWatch ad. For space, I edited out some things like the credits, cast list, etc.

TicketWatch: Don't Miss Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Mother Courage!


Become a Summer Sponsor Today!*

Each Summer Sponsorship is a 100% tax-deductible donation to The Public Theater's Shakespeare in The Park and entitles you to one reserved seat to Mother Courage and Her Children!


By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Original music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by George C. Wolfe
FEATURING: Raul Aranas[etc. ...]

In Brecht's seminal work we follow Mother Courage over a period of 12 years as one by one her children Kattrin, Eilif and Swiss Cheese are taken away by a vicious war. As Mother Courage seeks to profit from the war that is killing her children, she questions the roles of honesty, virtue and family in the face of a bitter struggle for survival.

Tues - Sun at 8 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park

3 EASY WAYS TO BECOME A SUMMER SPONSOR: BY PHONE: Call the box office at 212-260-2400

ONLINE: Order online by clicking here

IN PERSON: Visit The Public Theater box office, 425 Lafayette Street. Box office hours: Tues-Sat 1-7:30pm, Sun & Mon 1-6pm

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 the show.

*Certain black out dates apply. Summer Sponsorships are subject to availability. For information on FREE tickets, visit

ABOUT TICKETWATCH TicketWatch is an insider advertising e-mail providing special offers to the hottest shows on Broadway and beyond. Buy your event tickets online and look up venue information and seating maps with Theater Directory from

HOW TO ADVERTISEFor information on advertising in e-mail newsletters or other creative advertising opportunities with The New York Times on the Web, please visit our online media kit at: 500 Seventh Avenue NewYork, NY 10018

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

I'm sure part of the rationale for the program is that people now spend upwards of $100 for theatre tickets all the time. Not only for Broadway, but for the Public's summer rival, as it were, the Lincoln Center Festival, which has become the totally unabashed rich arts snob destination, charging $100 and up for the Synge and Mnouchkine marathons this year and last respectively. Wealthy people (and even me!) increasingly demonstrate the willingness to pay that much for what they perceive as a special event. So from the development/marketing end, this is a no-brainer for the Public. But it still disturbs me this is exactly the same mentality with which Broadway producers justified the $00+ "Premium" tickets--which many agreed was a problem! In short: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

My advice: Go for the $45 tix on CraigsList. If you can still find some.


Art said...

By the Way, Playgoer, how long before the following hits the arts organizations:

Basically: Donate money for tickets!

...but the fine print says that your donation doesn't guarantee you tickets.

Anonymous said...

The Public has taken it as a given that the budget for the Delacorte shows must keep rising because of a programming decision--an artistic decision--to produce lavish commercial-worthy shows there.

There's nothing artistic in the decision of:

"Ok we've chosen our play, now who is the biggest celeb we can get for our "star f*&#%r" audience ?

I think I'm starting to smell Broadway in Central Park.

Buddha Cowboy- NYC