The Playgoer: The Coast of Affordable

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Coast of Affordable WNYC's Leonard Lopate. A half-hour of Coast of Utopia talk, which will probably be as close as many of us get to seeing the show.

I've just found my actual tickets stubs from the original Royal National Theatre premiere of Utopia, almost exactly 4 years ago. I flew to London that November for basically a weekend to see all three plays in one day. I hope soon to type up some of the notes I took back then on that production--as my way around not being able to see and review this production.

But meanwhile, I just want to pass on this observation. Sure, I spent some money flying over there, but note the prices of my three tickets to the trilogy: Voyage (11am matinee) £13; Shipwreck (3:15 matinee) £19; Salvage (7:30pm) £14. Total: £46. The exchange rate then was basically 2-to-1, so let's call that $90. A pretty awesome deal for what were pretty decent seats. (Shipwreck was the splurge.) And that was not a student rate or any special discount.

At Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont, $90 will just about cover a $65 seat in the balcony. To one of the plays. And only the last two rows of the balcony. The overwhelming majority of seats are $100. So to see all three--which really is essential to appreciating any one of them--will run you anywhere between (not including fees) $235 for sucky seats and $300. Per person.

Who's up for that?

Answer: wealthy people.

For the record, Lincoln Center Theatre does run a Student Discount program, but it's tightly regulated, requiring people to sign up way in advance, and so membership is currently closed.

By the way, my cheap-deal airfare to London 4 years ago? About $250. So in other words, for just a little more than the price of three downtstairs seats at the Beaumont, I got the same show and a trip abroad.

And there in a nutshell is the difference between a true state theatre and an American nonprofit theatre. I have no doubt Lincoln Center's hands are tied. To mount this enormous show at all requires a certain ticket income to not totally lose money. But I would have almost preferred to see them sell, say, the first 5 rows of the orchestra for $250 a pop, in exchange for more at $65 or less. How about a discount to those serious enough to see all three? (A mini-subscription.) I'm sure such ideas were considered and rejected for various "sound" reasons. But my point is, where there's a will there's a way. If you truly want a wide swath of people to see this, if you care most about the next generation of theatre artists possibly being inspired by seeing the most ambitious work of a major world dramatist, then you work out a price scheme and appropriate fundraising with that goal in mind.

Otherwise, you're just playing the snob card.


Anonymous said...

Nor do they have any sort of volunteer usher deal either, as far as I know. I've been frustrated by the exclusive ticket prices of Lincoln Center for so many shows over the years I've pretty much turned my back on them.

Anonymous said...

Not to cut Lincoln Center slack, but the major costs of mounting UTOPIA in the U.S. are due to the unions -- Actors Equity primarily (a cast of nearly 30), the stagehands union, etc. I haven't been privy to the production budgets, but I know enough to know that at $100 a seat, they are still losing money on the production...and trying to make the rest up in sponsorship and fundraising efforts.

Which they will undoubtedly's not hard to raise money for class-A projects at Lincoln Center. But in a longtime subscriber house, they can't jack up the prices on the first five rows the way you suggest. (Those seats are booked for subscribers who have supported the theatre for decades, and are guaranteed year after year.) They could reduce some balcony seats, perhaps. But not a lot.

I feel very odd defending LCT, because I agree with you that they are essentially a playground for the rich. But in the case of this particular production -- enormous cast, set, etc. -- it's not just them who is sticking it to us. Share the blame with the unions, whose overreaching is making theatre too costly for anyone but the elite.

And I support the unions, too, I should be clear. But I think they have created a financial formula for theatres that make ticket pricing untenable.

Jaime said...

"If you truly want a wide swath of people to see this, if you care most about the next generation of theatre artists possibly being inspired by seeing the most ambitious work of a major world dramatist..."

I love much of LCT's work, but I've never gotten the impression that, other than through StudentTix, they actually do care about getting a wide demographic in their audience. Some theatres do - NYTW has their $10 Sundays, for example. There are also plenty of theatres that, unlike LCT, sell rush tickets NO MATTER HOW WELL-SOLD A SHOW IS. Fancy that.

And in response to modfab's objection that LCT couldn't jack up prices on the first 5 rows because that's where subscribers have to go, I don't think they have so many subscribers that they couldn't push them five rows back, and offer a premium subscriber ticket so that if people *really* cared about being moved five rows back, they could, even as subscribers, pay more to get the shmancy seats that are subsidizing the rest of us. I actually think, in this case, the premium seats are a great idea.

I also think LCT, and, hell, all theatres that have any pretense of doing worthwhile work that should be seen by anyone other than wealthy 70-year-olds, should ALWAYS make rush tickets available.

Anonymous said...

Actually StudenTix registration was still open last time I checked. Also there's a student rush program that doesn't require advance signup. And there were premium seats for Amercian Express cardholders, IIRC.

I read that even if the show sells out, they'll still be losing $7 million...

Still, you do have a point. I've spent $200 on two shows, one of which is a preview-- owch.

Anonymous said...

Isn't blaming the unions just a way of saying "If only everybody could be paid much less, tickets would be cheaper!"? Not a great solution. And not particularly credible either. Lincoln Center is, overall, probably the most richly endowed cultural institution in New York. If there are villains in this particular case--and I'm not sure there necessarily are--they're not to be found among the actors and stagehands.

parabasis said...


I have a post up at Parabasis about this. But to quickly address the union point- Lincoln Center still gets a deal on salaries compared to Broadway Producers (they have a unique LORT contract that only applies to them, acutally). And while the salaries are expensive, one thing I've tried to highlight in the past are the truly ridiculous costs of marketing a show. I think that's where there's some real creativity to be had vis-a-vis keeping costs down. Marketing firms take a very large comission on placing ads (something in the realm of 12%). So for one ad that costs $50,000 to place, you are also paying a $6000 commission on it.

If we were able to lower that to even 10%, the amount of money saved would be tremendous.

If we're going to try to cut costs, everyone is going to have to sacrifice, not just the class of laborers who rarely get paid a living wage anyway.

parabasis said...

oh, on that LORT thing-- that is based on something that someone who worked high up at Lincoln Center told me once. SO I'm not sure how accurate that is.

Playgoer said...

An interesting array of responses.

Thanks, anon, for pointing us to what LCT's rush policy actually is. I guess there's hope...But then again the line for those rush tix will be HUGE.

As for the union issues, I concur with the last comment that cutbacks in salary/compensation and work hour issues should not be the first solution in this case when there is so much $ involved in Lincoln Center, and since Stoppard (as much as I love him) is basically a $ magnet.

However, I do agree that the current union contracts are one factor in making large-cast projects prohibitive in the current NY climate. It's almost as if the contracts have adjusted to the other financial realities that most shows have smaller casts, and so no incentive or break is ever negotiated to enable larger shows. For instance, in regional theatre, certain midsize LORT contracts allow for use of local non union actors once you fill a quota of equity personnel (say, 10). Obviously that would not make sense in New York. But what about a break for casts over 30? Or establishing a rank of "apprentices"--young actors still accumulating Equity "points" who could be cast at lower salaries in parts under a certain number of lines. This would enable directors to fill out ensembles without having to worry producers about skyrocketing the budget.

I'm sure those who say LCT is going to lose money on this anyway are right. So I'm not accusing them of greed. They are suffering from this problem in New York that just makes large-cast plays prohibitive, especially for nonprofits, and even on Broadway when it's not a musical that can reliably earn it back.

So while I don't like scapegoating unions, I agree that union contracts would have to be part of a COMPREHENSIVE solution to this problem--as well as all the problems relating to how expensive it's become to produce real estate--I mean, theatre.

Jaime said...

Just regarding rush, I don't believe they do same-day rush all the time. I'm pretty sure it's case-by-case (when-they-feel-like-it, when-sales-are-poor) - there was no rush for Clean House, and I don't think there's rush for CoU. As a non-student (can't sign up for StudentTix) with a left-over student ID, this makes me sad.