The Murky, Morphing Future of Live Theater

I recently went on line to purchase theater tickets for myself and a few friends to attend a local production of a Broadway play.  It has completed its Broadway run, and now is touring the US.  It is coming to Los Angeles soon and running for several months.  I thought this would be a great opportunity.  I go to a lot of theater productions and enjoy live theater.

When I went on line, I found that the very cheapest seats in the back of the mezzanine (the “nosebleed section”) ranged from $175.00 to $196.00 apiece.  I thought I had mis-read the price listing, so I checked again.  Yep, I had read it right the first time.

We decided not to attend.  We all agreed that it was more than we wanted to pay.  Some of my friends are retired and try to be reasonably frugal while still enjoying life.  This made me think a lot about the future of theater.  And it also made me think about a trip I took to Boston several years ago; I stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in Beacon Hill, near Boston Common.  Over breakfast, I learned from reading the Boston Globe that Edward Albee, the well-known playwright, was participating in a panel discussion at the library.  With other panelists, he would discuss the future of theater in America.  As it turned out, I was still in Boston on the day of the panel discussion and since it was free, decided to attend.  It isn’t often you get to hear a Pulitzer winner of Albee’s caliber speak.  And for free!  What a great opportunity.

The place was packed, as one might expect.  I and my friend arrived in time to get a seat.  The panel consisted of Albee, an actress, a drama critic/journalist and I believe one other individual.  They admitted that it is becoming a real problem to entice new generations of theater goers to the venue of live stage productions, given the issues confronting producers, directors and supporters of theater.  Actors, more and more, expect equity wages.  Sets are more expensive to build and the laborers who build them may expect union wages.  In some cities, union wages are a requirement.  The cost of marketing and publicity is expensive.  The upkeep of the theaters themselves is costly.  The younger generation, the would-be patrons of tomorrow, have so many inexpensive options available for entertainment – concerts, DVDs, video on demand, cable TV, satellite TV, video games and on-line gaming with other enthusiasts across the globe.  You can watch quality productions on PBS, the BBC, the Hallmark Channel and other cable networks.  There is a trend toward filming drama productions and musicals and showing them on big screens in movie theaters.  Those cost around $20.00.  Opera and philharmonic music offerings are also being offered, broadcast live into movie theaters.  With all this reasonably priced entertainment, fewer and fewer would-be patrons are likely to save up to pay for a ticket to a musical costing $175.00 per ticket, plus a handling fee, plus gas and parking.  Maybe they would pay that much for a Justin Bieber or Jimmy Buffet concert, and even that is a stretch, but probably not for a theater production.  So, the dilemma for theater owners and “legitimate playwrights” is:  where will the future theater-goers of the next 15-20 years come from?  And how do you entice them to attend?  How do you make it attractive, desirable and relevant to their world?

And that became the crux of the panel discussion.  And my mind flashed back to it, now several years later, after my “aborted attempt” to buy tickets online.  Has live theater become the purview of the elite, the “haves,” the rich?  And we’d best redefine what constitutes “rich” these days, given the skyrocketing cost of absolutely everything.  Let’s say you buy tickets for the front mezzanine (not the orchestra – the mezzanine) at $352.00 per ticket.  For a couple that is $704.00.  And this is for a matinee, by the way – not even prime time.  And let’s say they tack on a handling fee of $7.50 per ticket.  That brings it to $719.00.  Then let’s say the cost of gas to drive to the theater is $18.00 at today’s prices.  To that add $10.00 for parking (and more if you valet park).  Now we’re up to $747.00.  You buy a souvenir program for $15.00 once you arrive (a foolish move, but let’s say you do).  And let’s say you go to dinner following the performance.  At a reasonably decent restaurant (not necessarily a high end place), you could count on at least $30.00 apiece with an entrée and a glass of wine and coffee afterward, even without dessert.  Add $60.00.  Now we’re up to $822.00.  Do you have to apply to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a grant, just to attend the theater?  For $822.00 you can drive to Carmel, or Monterrey or Santa Barbara for the weekend, have some nice dinners, visit a winery or two, take in some lovely scenery, relax, go to a jazz club and still have money left to stop for ice cream on the way back.  And there are others, lots of them, that could use $822.00 to buy groceries for their families, or buy shoes for growing kids.

And add one more little wrinkle.  Let’s say you decide to pay big bucks for a theater production, for the chance to see a well-known “name” actor, and therefore you make the financial sacrifice.  And then you arrive, only to find that the actor is sick and the understudy is appearing in today’s performance, and you feel angry and ripped off.  And still broke, or facing a credit card debt that you have to pay off over several months.

Well, maybe it is just me, but I think this is totally insane – over $800.00 for a matinee with “reasonable” add-ons.  How many 20 somethings do you know who are able or willing for pay this kind of fare? I rest my case – theater in America is doomed unless something changes.

But wait – perhaps all is not completely lost.  There are small off-off Broadway playhouses springing up in the suburbs.  There is community theater.  There are college and university productions.  I have attended several outstanding productions in such small theaters over the past few years and have been amazed at the quality of the performances.  Maybe this is the future of theater in America.  Some of these smaller venues seat 40-60 people, you are up close and personal with the actors, the immediacy is palpable.  Some seat several hundred.  In some of these productions, the actors interact with the audience.  You are drawn in, in a very personal way.  I’ve attended two productions of different Albee plays in such theaters.  Both were top notch.  New and lesser-known playwrights get their starts in such theaters.  There is a counter culture feel about these places.  Their subject matter is often edgy, controversial, gripping and socially relevant – just the ticket for young rebellious theater patrons.  These productions often push the envelope and make older patrons squirm.  They deal with abuse, sexual deviancy, addiction, social isolation.  No, they may not be wrapped in the glitz of Les Miserables (also a play with a social message), but they make you think, sit up and take notice. You want to discuss the play and its relevance with friends, and recommend one of these small theaters to others.  As a contrast to the example above, I can get a ticket to one of these small theaters for $22.00.  For two that is $44.00.  Before the performance, I go to a chain restaurant nearby that I like and get a meal for $8.50.  For two that is $17.00, added to $44.00 is $61.00.  I park for free.  Gas costs me about $8.00.  That is a total of $69.00, compared to $822.00.  I can save the difference (if I even have it in my budget) for a foreign trip later in the year, or next year.

Maybe we need a small revolt that could grow.  We can put our entertainment dollars into the smaller, struggling venues so they can thrive.  We might consider a year-end donation to the small theater of choice.  I might consider a small bequest in my will to a worthy theater group.  Lots of small donations from many grateful patrons can make a big impact.  There are ways to voice your outrage with your choices and your dollars.  Consumer outrage is powerful.

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About Connie

Connie Pursell is a baby boomer and a technical writer in the world of healthcare claims. Did Jesus Have a Cat? is her first book of essays. Connie misquotes Shakespeare: “Some are born quirky, some achieve quirkiness, and some have quirkiness thrust upon them.” She thinks she was born quirky but didn’t find her voice or full quirky potential until her later years. She grew up in Lancaster, California and earned a BA and an MA in English from Cal State University, Long Beach. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry – a couple of poems are included in the book. She is active in volunteer activities, makes beaded jewelry and lives in Laguna Niguel, CA with her three cats.