We all have regrets. We have the shows we almost saw, the times when we didn’t quite make it out the door, didn’t cross town, and then the show we wanted to see existed on Earth no more. It happened without us. We so wanted to go. We were tired, or we were distracted, or the cost was too high, or a combination of all of these, and that was that. Missed it.
A while ago, in Minneapolis, Prince would regularly do last-minute, low-key shows and donate the proceeds to local charities. A friend was going to one of these and invited me along. 50 dollars. To see Prince play for a few hours—solo, on electric guitar, if I remember right—in a small nightclub, for an audience of a hundred people, a few sets, late into the night. For 50 dollars. For only 50 dollars. Going to a non-profit charity, on top of that.
I was doing temp work at the time, but of course I could have gone.
In early 2004, a friend invited me to an after-work mixer at HotHouse, a small, dapper not-for-profit nightclub in Chicago, now closed. 10 bucks. A little fundraiser for a guy running for Senate. In retrospect, if the ticket had instead been 100 bucks, would it have been worth it to spend happy hour in a small room with Barack Obama? Take a guess.
When the Guardian, admirably covering online arts articles, reported last week on the online debate about ticket pricing at not-for-profit theaters, it got an essential fact wrong. Chris Wilkinson wrote, and it still appears incorrectly in the online article, that “Arena [Stage] is currently charging a minimum of $95 (approx £60) for tickets to its new season.”
Does it matter that, in fact, one show in Arena Stage’s season is carrying the $95-$115 ticket price, not the whole season? And that the $95 show is a new play in Arena’s smallest venue, while two other shows—Oklahoma! and Anna Devere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy—are running at the same time, for a substantially lower ticket price? I think it needs to be at the crux of the debate. Not: can Arena “raise” its ticket price to $95? But: can a theater hold an exclusive event in a smaller venue and call it something other than a fundraiser? And if an organization with theaters of several sizes is going to have a potential pre-Broadway tryout, is there wisdom—for artistic reasons—in putting on the show in its smallest space instead of its largest?
The articles I’ve read about Arena and ticket pricing have neglected to talk about the art, the particulars of this show. Every Tongue Confess features Phylicia Rashad, is directed by Kenny Leon, and is being staged in a theater with only 200 seats.
Stadium concerts have never been my thing. $100 for Dave Matthews? $250 for the Rolling Stones? Not my thing. $100 for Shrek? Or for a Broadway show? Pass.
But put, say, Mike Nichols directing Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Bill Irwin in a 299-seat theater doing Waiting for Godot? An arm and a leg, gladly—because it will happen, and then it will never exist again. Or [insert here the name of your favorite living musician], playing a small room? Sure. Or [insert here Phylicia Rashad, a new gospel-inspired play, and a show that might end up on Broadway, running during the holidays] in an intimate space? Yeah, especially assuming that the show is appropriate for a small venue.
We’ve certainly had a century of the opposite: from Tennesee Williams to August Wilson, many plays come to life in an intimate venue, but those outsized tenement living rooms and workplaces become exaggerated when adjusted to fill a wide, high, deep LORT mainstage or Broadway stage.
Does the largest space always need to be the highest priced ticket? Instead of the new play in the small space for the low price, can the old play in the big space be more moderately priced, and the new show in the jewel box be the exclusive ticket?
These shows are not designed to be part of a regular diet of $100-a-ticket shows, any more than LVMH expects its consumers to buy its products every week, or a wedding ring is designed to be a regular purchase. Arena is audaciously offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and if they can deliver on that, then it’s worth the price.
Who can afford Every Tongue Confess? The question is not who can afford Every Tongue Confess every week, or who can afford a season ticket at $95 per show. It’s not a country club or a university. The question is: who wants to make this show their rare, special occasion? Is this going to be an “elite” audience, or simply an audience of patrons excited enough to see this show?
What first struck me about Arena’s choices with Every Tongue Confess is that they put their most expensive show in their smallest venue—and that the play is a new play. The most dressed-up audience, the audience that has spent the most and has invested the most monetarily in the evening, the audience in possession of the so-called hottest ticket in town, is the one showing up for a new play in a small space. This is a thoroughly different model than putting the warhorse or star vehicle on the mainstage for a high price, while consigning a new play by a resident writer to the cheapest ticket.
If Steppenwolf were to put John Malkovich in its 100-seat Garage Theater, and charge a high ticket price, would it provide an inclusive experience by providing an exclusive one? Would it be an effective way to launch, say, a new Randall Colburn or Brett Neveu play into production?
Should a not-for-profit be in the luxury business? Is it justifiable in opera, where ticket prices top $100 because fundamental production requirements haven’t changed in a century? Should a fundraiser be the only excusable exclusive event? Can a special occasion carry the value of a hundred dollars and not be a luxury experience, in the way that a diamond ring or a honeymoon hotel isn’t a luxury? These are questions worth raising—but, first, the occasion, and the facts of the occasion, need to be factored into the equation of the reasoning.
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