In 1992, choreographer Bill T. Jones directed Kurt Weil’s “Lost in the Stars” for the Boston Lyric Opera at the Emerson Majestic Theatre. The three performances were sold out, and the show lost more than $2 million.
I mention this because I had a friend in the show and was unable to see her perform, as the cost of tickets was out of my financial reach. It was not so much the high ticket prices that bothered me as the fact that $2 million in arts funding were bestowed upon a production that was not accessible to the general public.
Such a business model does not impress Susanna Burney, a Seattle theater professional who has sat on all sides of the table. She has produced, directed and administrated. Her acting resume includes stints on most area stages, in both contemporary and classical roles, as well as her original work.
Her own company, Our American Theater, toured its staged readings of great American plays throughout the city’s many neighborhoods. Burney is also a Screen Actors Guild member whose film credits include a featured role in John Carpenter’s “The Ward.”
“The arts are essential to a healthy society,” Burney said. “Every citizen has the right to experience artistic endeavors of all kinds. If we rarify our cultural atmosphere with the application of prohibitive ticket prices, part of our population is denied this right.”
Burney is enthusiastic about recent experiments by Seattle theaters to make their art more accessible to the general public. She cites ACT’s success in reducing a $300,000 deficit while increasing audience numbers by such processes as initiating some pay-what you-can performances.
In her work as a marketing director, she has been an advocate of inexpensive tickets but met resistance that ran from the perception that special ticket deals tend to devalue the work and the more hardcore position that high ticket prices snag the wealthy patron who may well be tomorrow’s donor.
“That is rubbish,” protests history
professor Genevieve McCoy, who claims that she has never thought any the less of a show because she gained admittance through discounted tickets. “Free performances might lead to devaluation, but deep discounts make these shows available to those who could not afford to attend them otherwise.”
Schools and libraries remain the centers where arts are the most accessible. Libraries, especially the newly built ones, have exceptional performance facilities.
As part of its educational program, Book-It Repertory Theatre, a local company based in the Seattle Center House that dramatizes works of fiction, offers free performances under the moniker “Book-It All Over,” including “The Big Read,” in which a book is chosen for people all over the city to read, followed by their staging of the book.
Macha Monkey Productions, founded in 2001 and based in Belltown, delivers innovative educational programs that showcase theatrical works featuring strong female characters.
Living Voices, based in Wallingford, tours nationally in schools and libraries with its solo multimedia performances, in which the actor plays a witness to history, with historical footage accompanying the performance.
Seattle Shakespeare Company, also in the Seattle Center House, has a program in which high school students receive three to four days of intense immersion in Shakespeare. Such programs are dependent upon grants, and Seattle — with its wealth of companies devoted to Shakespeare — often finds theater companies competing for the money that would enable them to provide free educational programs.
After completing a residency at one local high school, Burney was told by a teacher, “I sure hope we can get the money to do this again next year.” This was in a school that had been running the program for several consecutive years.
The fear of losing the grants is a stress-producing
situation that never goes away. Even the big theaters — with educational and outreach programs built into their infrastructure — operate under the possibility of funding being withdrawn.
“One of the biggest challenges facing arts organizations is the struggle to meet expenses,” Burney said. “This includes trying to find the right model that will pay their bills, while keeping their shows accessible to the general public. There is also the issue of the diminishment of the arts in today’s economic climate. People are making decisions based upon their finances. How do we compete with Sounder games?”
This brings us back to the question of how far tax money should be used to support commercial enterprises. Is it worth it for a city to bring in a prestigious director to stage a production that will be inaccessible to most of that city’s taxpayers?
“It would be great if every theater and concert hall could give one performance in their run that was open and free for the public,” Burney said. “All these organization are 501(c)3s , which means they are tax-exempt. This should make it a mandate for them to provide at least one free performance for those who cannot afford to buy a ticket.”
On May 5, Seattle Opera did just that, with a simulcast of “Madama Butterfly” in KeyArena that enabled 8,000 people to see the opera for free. Although the attendees missed the experience of being in the same room as the performers, the technology enabled them to enjoy a fairy rich experience of the opera.
Even with free, or deeply discounted, tickets, there remains the problem of distribution. In 2000, when Peter Brook came to Seattle with his staging of “Hamlet” at the Mercer Arena, a small number of tickets were available for $15 on the day of each show. Unfortunately, only those with the whole day free to wait in line were able to take advantage of the offer.
Like Boston’s “Lost in the Stars,” this was a show that relied upon grants and donations for its $900,000 budget, only two-thirds of which was covered by ticket sales.
Burney remembers a day in the late 1980s when, as a recent graduate from acting school, she splurged on tickets for “Les Miserables.” They were the cheapest seats available, and the ushers rudely motioned for her to use the back staircase to make the ascension to the nose-bleed seats.
“I was so mad because of the way I was treated that I could hardly enjoy the first half of the show. Even the cheapest tickets were a huge expenditure for me, and I wasn’t even allowed to go into the theater through the lobby. And this was a play about poor people!”
BILL WHITE was a regular contributor to the arts section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its demise in 2009. He most recently was the film critic for Seattle PostGlobe. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.