The Playgoer: Why We Don't Subscribe

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Why We Don't Subscribe

For the playgoer on a budget, there are only two reasons to actually become a subscriber to one of our illustrious Off Broadway nonprofit theatre companies. One, to guarantee tickets in advance to sure-to-be-sold-out shows (like South Pacific or Dead Man's Cell Phone). And two, to get a significant discount on said tickets.

Reason one still holds true.

There are some other miscellaneous perks, sure. (Like ticket exchanges or 10% off at the gift shop!) But let's face it, the only benefit that compensates for having to front a lot of cash--and not to mention plan your life for the next year around just 4 or 5 nights of theatre!--is to save money on shows you probably would see anyway.

So now that I--and I'm sure many of you--have been getting blitzed via email and dead-tree letters to subscribe, let's look at just what exactly it costs today at some of our "A-list" companies. What is the investment?

Some companies offer different subscription options. But here's a sampling of some of the value packages being offered for 2008-2009.

Manhattan Theatre Club: 7 plays for $365 ($52.14 a show)
Public Theatre: 6 plays for $255 ($42.50 a show)
Playwrights Horizons: 6 plays for $260 ($43.30 a show)
Primary Stages: 4 plays for $170 ("only $42.50 per ticket"!)

Now I know Off Broadway prices have to go up along with everything else. And we're supposed to have long gotten over the fact that Off Broadway already passed the threshold of the $70 top a few years ago. (That wasn't even the Broadway top when I was born four decades ago.) And, true, I suppose in that context, these subscription packages are bargains.

But someone has to say it: the fact that the top Off Broadway nonprofit companies can't offer a ticket in the $30 range--even in a multi-play subscription commitment--is outrageous. Outrageous.

In my admittedly unthorough poking around, I only found one prominent company that makes it into that range: MCC with $99 for 3 plays (and $79 if you go during the the first ten performances of each).

To whom is a $40 theatre ticket a bargain? Sure I'll pay that, and more, for a once in a lifetime event. But to pay that in advance for a slate of shows that I really don't know much about? Not to mention the increasing trend of the "TBA slot" (Trust us! Something good!).

Let's put it this way. I like theatre. I'm interested in seeing lots of different kinds of theatre--heck, I even make it my business. So when I'm having doubts about shelling out over $200 up front for probably two solo shows, an unfinished wreck by some fashionable Juilliard grad, and something no one would produce if the writer didn't have a famous name.... what kind of interest do you think you'd get from people who hate theatre?

Sure some of these companies offer further discounts for preview-only subscriptions (slight discounts--at the Public it's $40), or for the under-30 set. But according to the Roundabout, at least, I apparently stopped being "hip" enough for their Hiptix membership at 36. So where does that leave me, and those like me?

Before I sound too self-pitying...Yes, I know cheaper tickets are to be had at many of these theatre during the season itself--rush tix, email discount codes, "pay what you can" nights , in addition to outright "papering" now and then. (Not to mention TDF and TKTS.) But we're talking about subscriptions here--the thing these theatres most want us to do. It's the life blood of their income.

And they wonder why these subscriptions are declining.

No wonder the only place I consistently subscribe is BAM. For just $25 a ticket I can see a number of major world-class productions. And that's just the shitty balcony seats. For the $40 it costs at those other theatres I can actually sit downstairs!

Now BAM is different, of course, in that's basically a presenting venue, not responsible for producing the shows but importing them. So our LORT theatres would argue their own costs are higher. But let's not forget, they're "importing" (or "co-producing") plenty of shows, too. Often at least one show a season is coming from somewhere else--not just the play, but the director and cast. Second Stage's Eurydice, for instance, came pretty much intact from Yale Rep--where I'm sure tickets were much cheaper.

I guess we can't expect the situation to get any better. When you only have, say, 299 seats you can only mark them down so much. (Up front, at least. They'll discount later, if they have to, when a certain show tanks.) But what about at least a "$30 Tuesdays" series?

As for those companies who do have larger venues--i.e. the Broadway houses run by Roundabout and MTC--I implore them to consider different strategies to actually fill those spaces. And I'm looking at you, MTC--your Top Girls might not have played to so many empty seats in the Biltmore* if you offered a $30-$35 balcony subscription up front so that the real Caryl Churchill lovers like myself could afford it. Instead you offered no discounts and got a bunch of $50-$100 high rollers who now hate Caryl Churchill and walked out when they found out there was more than one intermission.

(*In an unrelated development--or highly related!--MTC has now rechristened Biltmore "The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.")

You may have noticed I've left out Lincoln Center Theatre so far. That's because they have an entirely different model, one that may just be the best possible solution in what promises to be an increasingly expensive future. LCT doesn't do subscriptions--they do "memberships." You pay $50 to join. Then you pay $40-$50 for whatever shows in the season you want. The one year I did it, I got great seats in the Vivian Beaumont to see Henry IV and King Lear for what worked out to be about $40 each. (I think the rates were a little less then.) In short, not too bad.

Plus I didn't have to get my calendar out to plan whether I wanted to see Play X on a Thursday or Friday next April.

So, in sum....

If these theatres want to learn, finally, how to get younger people--younger people who like theatre!--to subscribe more, they're going to have shake things up a lot more. They're not only going to have to address price, but value. Or to put it another way: Just what am I paying you $300 for, MTC?

And in New York, remember, there's a lot of theatre to see. In case you haven't heard. Can anyone imagine subscribing to more than one of these joints???


Playgoer said...

Just to elaborate on two points...

What I say about the impossibility for most folk of subscribing to more than one NYC theatre only underscores how much the subscription model belongs to regional theatre--especially in "one-theatre towns." There it may still make complete sense for cultured folk to subscribe to 'THE theatre' the way they do for 'THE ballet' or 'THE symphony.'

Second, I recognize for MTC and Roundabout, their packages do include 3-4 "Broadway" shows in their larger venues. So I guess $50 is a deal for B'way these days.

Speaking of Roundabout, if you're wondering about their package, well according to their site, it's "as little as $59 per play"!

Finally, to point out another obvious alternative model--there's the Signature/Time Warner deal, with a corporate-subsidized flat rate ticket of $20. (It's actually the only model where the subscription total is slightly MORE than single tickets, for processing fees, and I guess for the privilege of first dibs.) Not all theatres can get such a subsidy, perhaps (esp. in this economic climate), but it's certainly something worth aiming at for the smaller companies, I'd say...

Art said...

Hi Garret,

When I did my subscription survey for Boston this year, I pointed out that many theatres here also offer smaller packages: 3 or 4 show packages rather than the complete 6 or seven.

You could could put together a nice subscription for yourself by combinging these.

The more I deal with marketing to the next generation, the more I see that there will probably form some type of pool or alliance in which subscriptions have portability.

Anonymous said...

FYI Atlantic Theater offers a membership on the LCT model - $25 for each play after a $50 joining fee.

I'd say jump on that - the broadway production of speed the plow is part of their membership series.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad this post went beyond the usual "is any show really worth more than $50??" bashing, because of course theatres can't control all their costs. Technology-assisted mass entertainment can go down in price as technical innovation cuts against rises in rents and wages, but theatre is essentially a slave to those forces, because it happens live, in one room, for a necessarily limited number of people. Theatre prices don't rise because theatres are greedy or incompetently managed (although maybe they are), but because "rents" inevitably rise in a market economy. In short, tickets are more expensive in New York because rents are higher in New York, and commercial rent is notoriously inelastic, even in a downturn like this one. Sorry to run on, but I do tire of reading rants about prices that simply ignore - or are ignorant of - the economic drivers of those prices.

All that said, you bring up some interesting ideas about "memberships" and portability. My question is - what about the economic health of the theatres themselves? I wish your post had addressed THAT question more clearly, and hadn't been framed in an "us-vs.-them" fashion. Portability, for instance, increases economic risks for theatres (just as subscriptions, which deliver money up-front to theatres, increase YOUR risk of paying for a weak play). Is there a way that risk could be off-set? Is there a way to structure "memberships" that enables stable financial planning for theatres, while allowing playgoers more flexibility? To sum up, the kind of rants one routinely hears about products, or movies, shouldn't really be made about theatre. It can't be outsourced or mass produced or managed toward the bottom line the way other businesses can. The economics of theatre MUST, perforce, either involve direct subsidy, or a cooperative understanding with the audience. Remember those equations way back in macro and micro in which consumption had to balance production? The same thing has to hold true in theatre.

Playgoer said...

Thank you for those points, Thomas. I actually agree with all of them! And I'm sorry if my "ranting" mode implied theatre companies are just greedy. In fact, I'm with you that this is a SYSTEMIC problem, not about personalities or individuals--who I'm sure all would at least LIKE to make their shows as affordable as possible to all.

Still, I still feel it's important for theatre audiences to keep saying these things, even if it's perceived as ranting. These companies need to to know that while there's no easy solution, the current solution IS NOT WORKING at keeping the audience diverse and younger. And I want to challenge them--or the best economists/general managers on their staffs--to keep dreaming up new models. Not to get content with the subscriber model as it exists, because that model is keeping folks away.

Playgoer said...

Art--I just checked out your Boston post. I guess I should say...sorry for plagiarizing? I mean, you had the same format and everything!

Seriously, I missed your post and had no idea at the time. But wished I had seen it, since it makes an enlightening comparison.

So props to you. Or to put it another--and more nerdy way--GMTA?