09 April 2005

It's the Ticket Prices, Stupids

I've spent most of my life involved in some sort of theatrical activity or another. Mostly community, high school, and college plays, but I was a Dramatic Writing major at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for three years. Three good years, exciting years, but also deeply disillusioning years -- I learned that professional theatre in the U.S. is made by a small group of people for a smaller group of rich people. I decided that the American theatre had made itself irrelevant, and that its future in this country was to be as a minor form of tourist entertainment. (Thus, the investments of Disney in Times Square made sense.) I continue find the world of professional theatre more nauseating than appealing, and to find the sorts of theatre happening in small towns and high schools and colleges to be more inviting, varied, and creative than the professional forms.

One of the biggest influences on my view of what theatre is and can be has been Peter Brook, particularly his book The Empty Space, which remains my favorite book about the theatre, despite some of its '60s hippy-dippiness and oracular pronouncements. It remains one of the most vividly truthful books ever written about what it means to create theatre. Brook knows. He has spent his long life experimenting in various ways to create the most immediate, thoughtful, and arresting theatre he could imagine -- with, it seems, more successes than failures. In fact, one of the most breathtaking things I've ever seen was a bad videotape of Brook's production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard -- I hate plays on a TV screen, but this was mesmerizing, and the set primarily consisted of some rugs on the floor.

Now, Peter Brook is speaking out about the greatest sin of the theatre world: ticket prices. If you've gone to a play in New York recently, you know how horrible ticket prices are. Not just Broadway -- a couple years ago, I went to see a friend's show at a well-known Off-Broadway theatre, a play that had no set and four actors. One ticket cost over $50 once all fees were applied. I've given up going to my favorite theatre in Boston, the American Repertory Theatre, because the ticket prices are just too high. I've seen some of the best productions of my life there, but the cost was too great, and I just won't do it anymore.

Various theatre companies say they can't afford to produce good plays unless they charge the money they do. Don't believe them. They can't produce plays the way they do, certainly, but they probably shouldn't be producing them that way anyway, because all it has done is make the American theatre a despicably inbred, useless institution. Let the theatres die. Who will miss them? The playwrights and actors, perhaps, but fewer and fewer new plays are produced than ever before (would you risk seeing a play by a writer you've never heard of if it cost $50?!), and most actors already can't earn a living from the professional theatre.

Back in 1995, American Theatre magazine published an article by Theresa Rebeck, a playwright who had discovered that writing for TV was more fun and less elitist than writing for theatre (this made sense to anybody who'd read her plays, which read like prime time TV shows). I wrote a letter to American Theatre that was published in the February 1996 issue, and said, "...yes, most theatre is quite elite -- the rich can afford the tickets. The first priority of all theatre artists should be to lower ticket prices." (I was naive, and thought italics could change the world.) This was written under the influence of Peter Brook's writings, and I'm thrilled to see him now doing what he can to bring ticket prices toward something at least somewhat more reasonable.

In 1962, Wole Soyinka wrote an article called "Towards a True Theatre" (collected in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage) in which he criticized African universities for building large, expensive theatres, saying that "this is not America where -- to take one example, the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- a university theatre is built for five to six million dollars, a stupid amoral example of affluent patronage." True theatre, according to Soyinka, does not come from comfortable spaces crammed full of the latest technology: "No one who is seriously interested in the theatre demands a playground for pushing buttons and operating gaily coloured panels."

Soyinka seems to have moderated his views over time, and his plays have been produced at some very large theatres throughout the world, but there's something to be said for his youthful idealism, because the American theatre, at least, has become so sodden with the practicalities of making money that a little idealism might be a good thing. With luck, Peter Brook won't be the only notable professional to do anything he can to make sure that ordinary people have access to the theatre.

Actually, my favorite words related to this subject are a haiku: Robert Hass's version of a poem by Kobayashi Issa:
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for saying this. I wish someone would hear you: I miss great production after great production because going would wipe out the entertainment budget. Why, when the Lucile Lortel theatre has Jane Alexander in a play about Djuna Barnes can someone who's read Djuna Barnes and would love to see this take (me) not afford to go. It's not as if this world were teeming with Barnes admirers...

    That is to say: I agree completely. The Lion King is one thing (still, I cannot afford to take *my* toddler there), but off- and off-off-? I don't understand why things here are so prohibitive.

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  2. There are lots of reasons shows are expensive -- the primary reason being that lots of people are involved, and they all want to get paid a living wage. The cost of renting theatres is expensive, and theatre owners have to pay taxes, electricity, etc. Publicity can be expensive. Etc. Costs can rise quickly and exponentially, and it's a rare show that makes a substantial profit.

    That's an explanation, but it can't be an excuse, because the fact is that until ticket prices become reasonable, theatre will remain one of the most elitist pastimes. If that's something actors, writers, directors, and producers are comfortable being part of, well, so be it. I just won't have anything to do with it.

    The situation also makes it impossible for really good writing to be appreciated, because many of the best plays can't be fully appreciated on one viewing, and yet who can afford to go see a play more than once? At least in the U.K. a lot of the theatres that produce new plays have cheap copies of the scripts for sale, so for a few extra pounds you can read the play at home. Imagine what would have happened to Waiting for Godot if people had only be able to afford to see it once and hadn't been able to get a copy of the script? That's the situation for most new plays in the U.S. right now.

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  3. I've been rereading my diaries from the mid-1970s, when I was in my 20s, and I'm amazed how often my friends and I (who were not particularly "theater" people) went to see plays. I found only one reference to price: my girlfriend and I got student rush tickets to a Public Theatre revival of "The Cherry Orchard" with James Earl Jones. I wrote that the tickets cost $2 each. Factoring in inflation over three decades -- according to a web inflation calculator -- makes that about $9 a ticket in 2005 money.

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  4. It occurs to me -- though I know next to nothing about the theater world and may be off base -- that low and non-existent ticket prices are probably one reason that summer outdoor theater is so popular. I'm thinking of Shakespeare fests, but also things like Spring Green in Wisconsin and Horse Cave Theatre here in Kentucky. (Permanent outdoor theaters that are well-respected and do other productions alongside Shakespeare.) There's the obvious allure of being outdoors, but if the pricing was higher, I doubt as many people would be able to go to these.

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  5. Thanks for pointing out something which needs to be pointed out more often.

    However, the problem is slightly more complex than what you make it.

    Theatre is one of those genres which just doesn't make enough money to sustain itself, no matter what the scale is. There tends to be hidden subsidies both at the high end and low end, either in terms of voluntary labor, free space or institutional support. These hidden subsidies are more indispensable for small scale projects. Also, city and location is a factor. Last summer I attended the Neo Futurists theatre in Chicago, an avante garde experimental theatre that performs at midnight. Theatre was packed, ticket prices were variable (generally about $12), and lines were long. This theatre company was doing many things right, but in many ways, the business model probably couldn't be replicated in smaller cities or in areas without a significant college age population.

    Competition with blockbuster and movie theatres is another issue; sure, everybody agrees that live is better, but when given a choice between local actors of unknown quality in a live performance and world famous actors in Lord of the Rings in a film costing a hundred million dollars with publicity and clips everywhere, it's not difficult to imagine what most people will choose.

    The other issue is publicity. Publicizing artistic events is hard. Really hard. I mean, next to impossible. I discovered that when trying to publicize a local storytelling event. Even local arts calendars tend to be full of clutter; it's hard to reach even receptive audience members before the event actually occurs. Even sympathetic local media gives first priority to organizations that pay for ads.

    These are not insurmountable obstacles, and with the right combination of brains and ingenuity and location, you can make some remarkable theatre. And even though the travelling Miss Saigons don't do much to advance the cause of theatre, they do provide lots of employment and paychecks.

    As far as TV being less elitist, I always thought that Shakespeare, if alive today, would be writing for Everyone Loves Raymond or 24. Yet, how many TV script writers are household names these days? Future generations will probably show more appreciation for the script writers of All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Friends and King of Queens than we ever did.

    Robert Nagle, idiotprogrammer

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  6. I'm lucky in that I've been a member of the Theatre Development Fund since I was a college student and I still get discount tix through that org. Otherwise I'd never go to the theater as I refuse to pay full price.

    Anne,
    Just so you know, The Djuna Barnes one person show was terrible. Trust me, you didn't miss anything. The script was extraordinarily thin. Jane Alexander was good as Barnes but my friend and I ended up shaking our heads at what a hash they made of it. It gave very little feel for her writing.

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  7. Robert, you're entirely right -- there are many costs and few sources of income. I've been an actor and director with companies that have barely any budget and others that survive on small grants or the generosity of philanthropists. High ticket prices just aren't an option around here -- nobody wants to pay even $20 for a show when they can go to a movie for less than half that. And if theatre-going is to be a habit for ordinary people, ticket prices can't be high.

    Ellen, yes, indeed, TDF was very helpful to me when I was a student at NYU. There was actually a grad student in my department whose job it was to come up with a few cheap or free shows each week for the rest of us. Finally, though, I became a reviewer for the school paper, and got to see some marvelous shows for free (and phenomenal seats), though the ultimate price was that I saw more dreck than greatness, because the editor of the culture section of the school paper saved the best tickets for himself. But I saw and reviewed Albee's A Delicate Balance, which I still remember vividly, and was an experience that made up for all the painfully bad things I had to sit through.

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