Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Theatre and Money

I'm surprised at how much I've been drawn to articles about theatre management issues as opposed to artistic issues alone. One reason for this involves trying to take a national view and see a bigger picture for theatre than a single show. Economic issues facing theatre obviously affect the artistic trends; how they do so is most definitely a subject for this blog.

Still, though, there's something that simply goes unsaid too much, because it really is the fundamentally biggest issue facing theatre as a popular art form.

It's too expensive to do and costs too much to go.

There. I said it. I would love to take 2 young cousins to see "Big River," currently on tour. But at $75 a ticket??? That's more than it would have cost on Broadway, given the fact that tickets could have been found half-price at TKTS. Philadelphia, while apparently having experimented with something similar in the past, simply doesn't have the structure to support a half-price system. Instead, theatres rely on rush tickets, and inexpensive subscriptions for students.

The National Theatre in London, under the new artistic direction of Nicholas Hytner, found great success by offering 10 pound tickets this past season. It's obviously a model that may not work here, but I'm not asking for 10 pound tickets anyway. There's a big difference between 10 pounds (about $16) and $30 and $75.

Hytner succeeded by offering great work in a theatrical capital. But what he did on price can't be ignored. This from the Guardian's March assessment of Hytner's ultra-successful tenure so far.

"By universal consent, the £10 season in the Olivier, the largest (1,160 seats), most intractable of the National's three spaces, is Hytner's greatest achievement. For six months last year, ticket prices were slashed: top price tickets, charged for just one third of the auditorium, tumbled from £38/£33 to £25; the other two-thirds of the seats to a mere £10 - fractionally more than the price of a West End cinema ticket. "

How could he do it?

"Financially he was able to do this thanks to a combination of private sponsorship (£1m over three years from Travelex), canny application of a £14.8m Arts Council grant and stringent budgeting in the production/design department. But it was still a considerable gamble, requiring at least 75% capacity (Hytner hinted as much as 100% in an interview with the Guardian last year) over the difficult summer months to be viable."

Again, the model is tough and there's a huge Catch 22, with an extra caveat: it can only cut prices if it brings in audience, and it can only bring in audiences if it cuts prices AND produces great, popularly appealing theatre.

But maybe it's time for a huge push from both government and private sponsors to focus on grants and programs that cut prices. What's the point of doing good work if people can't afford to see it even if they want to?

For additional reading, there's a good summary of why making theatre's so expensive and other issues in this Cleveland Plain Dealer piece.

And news from Hartford that arts groups are teaming to offer inexpensive subscriptions. I still think subscription cuts are not enough; to build a theatre habit, we need to make theatre affordable as an impulse choice.