A House of Half-Empty Seats Cannot Stand

Alabama TheaterWhen it comes to the future of live theatrical performance, I’ll admit it: I’m part of the problem.

I was on a bicycle ride with a friend through Cincinnati. We’d just finished dinner and were heading back to our starting point. Along the way, we passed the Showboat Majestic, whose final curtain was about to fall, according to an announcement by artistic producer Tim Perrino. The parking lot was mostly full, but as I solemnly passed the old theater, her gentle rocking from the natural ebb and flow of the river imperceptible from that distance, I felt a cold shadow pass over me. I wanted to say, “What a tragedy! Someone should find them more funding!” I would have been far from alone in that sentiment. What I did not want to admit to myself at the time was…I had no idea what show they were even running.

A week later, I’m actually in the seat of a (different) theater, and I’m absolutely boggled by the amount of donors, whose numbers rivaled the number of seats. An insert (admittedly very gorgeous) had to be provided to get all of their names in the program, which ended up looking like someone bedazzled the note pages shoved haphazardly into a gen-ed textbook. My shock was further compounded by the realization that the house was perhaps only slightly better than half full.

There is a problem in the world of theatrical performance, including symphony, opera, dance and drama. What many of us have to realize is that we are a part of that problem.

Boiled down, it comes down to this: cost is going up while revenues are going down.

Half of the equation, worded that way, many of us will never be able to affect: the rising cost of theater. That falls on the boards of every respective company from coast to coast, and some, like Manuela Hoelterhoff, condemn the board of the New York City Opera for causing its filing for bankruptcy due to a dramatic tragedy of errors. I won’t contest Hoelterhoff’s assertion; the labor disputes at Carnegie Hall and the Minnesota Orchestra are parts of the arts that I will never be heard on, and it’s probably best we keep it that way.

But what about that other half? Even if more donors were to step forward, as it appeared by my last trip to the theater that they had, can that make up for houses half full?

Make no mistake: as an actor, I love to be paid for my work. Few compliments satisfy quite like a paycheck well earned. But as an artist? I like to see eyes in my direction.

I try to ignore the tiny red faces of seats turned in on themselves. Sometimes I can. Sometimes, however, it’s very difficult. Part of this is vanity, yes, but part of it just seems unfair: how can we continue to ask the wealthy, the elite and—God forbid—the government to pay for empty seats?

I’m not yet well versed enough in this environment to know what exactly the NEA does for artists or art institutions, for instance, but to ask the government for money when the community is non-responsive seems, on a fundamental level, counterintuitive to the purpose of art (it also puts us in a little predicament when said government funds suddenly exit stage right, pursued by a bear). I refuse to believe or accept that the best answer to the (financial) woes of theatrical performance is to continue to rely heavily/almost exclusively on the patronage and generous support of the wealthy few, yet I say that hand in hand with the knowledge that I’ll personally pursue almost any option that allows me to cut the price of a ticket in half (or more). That double standard is the problem on the part of the paying audience.

I won’t lie: I can’t afford to go to the theater four nights a week…probably not even four nights a month. Yet that’s what donors pay for, effectively: for myself and others to enjoy reduced-cost seats…virtually whenever we want them. I’ve never written them a thank you letter, and while I’ve applauded when such donors are mentioned before the start of shows, it’s kind of like saying grace as a kid: it’s really hard to be truly thankful when you’ve never known a situation without those donations. But we put on a good show; we clap…and then immediately forget their names and contributions, digging in to the performance we didn’t mind skimping costs for.

♦◊♦

As a Millennial, this I can confirm: to get me to your theater, you must:

1) do shows that I want to see,
2) at a price I can afford,
3) at a venue which I can feasibly get to.

I was hesitant about adding that third point, but I’m going to level another truth here, and it’s one that I think strikes at the heart of the matter: I just binge watched an entire AMC show from the comfort of my computer chair for the small price of a Netflix account.

To clarify, that means that, for $7.99/mo, I can watch entire seasons of Emmy-nominated entertainment without leaving my house. If you are an artistic director and cannot offer me something better, then what you’re offering me is novelty; is it any wonder I’ll (kindly) refuse more often than not?

To put that in perspective, in my city, that kind of an entertainment budget means I could, by foregoing Netflix, see one show roughly every four months, for a total of four shows a year. Budgeting four hours per show to include travel, dinner and maybe a drink at the bar, that’s 16 hours of entertainment, or maybe one and a half to two seasons of a TV show.

If I really want to, I can knock that out in a good weekend with Netflix.

I don’t mean to refuse the offers to see live performance, not all the time. Believe me, I love a good Shakespeare, Bach or Shaw as much as, if not more than, the next person. But now there are Pops performances on Youtube, concerts on Hulu and even the odd modern art performance on Chatroulette (but you know…I won’t even go there). Mark Rylance, speaking one of the (arguably) greatest speeches ever written in the English language, is available at my fingertips for free, whenever I want it; why should I pay a hundred bucks to see him, at a time I have no power over? The most important question an artistic director should be asking in regards to the future of live theater is this: what can get people, like me, simply out of the house? Therein, one will find the quandary of cost and convenience, so we don’t need to go looking elsewhere or put those problems on their own pedestal.

♦◊♦

We cannot get overly romantic about the novelty of live performance anymore. It’s not enough. People. Don’t. Care. And if they do care, they’re either your donors, or your employees (or should be your employees—hire them. Teach them. Stoke that flame. Make them work for what they love, so that they’ll never take it for granted). Nor can we continue to live under this delusion that, “Oh, the arts will always be around.” Yes, they will, to some degree; performers and artists will continue to find venues for their work, whether that’s Carnegie Hall, a car on the A train, or publicly-funded security cameras. Unless you’re the artistic director of the MTA, I don’t think the idea of artists being on the same level as cockroaches is one we need to be propagating.

But as for us—the normal folk, the discount ticket folk, the Netflix and reality TV folk—we for our parts cannot sit in our comfy chairs and tear out our hair every time an arts institution goes belly up, when it was not our butts in the seats. We cannot rally and cry at the funeral about, “Oh, let them live again!” when we never (or rarely) paid a visit. We cannot chant with the masses and the speculators about how, “The arts are in such bad shape,” when we do virtually nothing to improve that situation. That is our problem.

After all, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you are one.

~

Photo: Bahman Farzad/Flickr

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