This year, American Ensemble Theater is continuing its policy of $10 tickets. How, we asked Martin Blank, AET’s Artistic Director, can any company do that? And why?
With recession jitters and a volatile stock market, now may not be the ideal time to delve into low-cost theater and theater tickets. Then again it might. Every theater’s business model is different. I’m certainly concerned about the well-being of every company in the D.C. area. Still, theater has been around for thousands of years. The tide that goes out comes back. For theater companies and audiences, I hope the tide doesn’t go out too far.
Most of what follows holds, in my experience, in good times and in challenging ones. And it is useful to remember that almost all theater companies started as small ones – often with comparatively low-cost tickets.
As Founding Artistic Director of Theater J, I can tell you that our 1992-93 season had three full productions. Our total budget for that year was $30,000, which included my salary. Every ticket was ten dollars. An article I just read pegged Theater J’s current budget at $1.6 million. Well and good. There are currently ten professional theaters in D.C. with budgets over a million dollars a year. And a few at ten million per annum. There is no question that large budgets allow companies to do things smaller ones cannot.
I have no problem with what most theaters charge for tickets. Even some of the big players have all sorts of discounts, from “pay what you can” nights, to season subscriptions, to seeing a play for free by ushering. I know each company charges what it must to survive. So how – and maybe equally important, why – do some theater companies work on a business model that allows them to present plays with low-cost theater tickets?
Let’s say for our purposes that a low-cost theater ticket is ten to twenty dollars. What do you really need, at a minimum, to produce a play? You need a play, actors, and an audience. You might want some lights, but then again you can put a play on outdoors during daylight. You might want a director. But in ancient Greece, the birthplace of drama, the playwright staged his own plays.
Yes, as Artistic Director of American Ensemble Theater, I want a nice theater space. We are extremely fortunate to have been at Capital Hill Arts Workshop last year and to be back this year. They are not only affordable, thus allowing AET to have a top ticket price of ten dollars this season, but, in addition, CHAW has a wonderful, supportive staff.
Yes, I want lights, sets, costumes, and a director. And so on. But my point is that not only in theory, but also in practice, theater can be put on without most of these. For a cost of zero. So it is fair enough to say, I have not chosen for AET the most inexpensive model available. For fun, let us start at a cost of zero.
That’s what I did when I was five years old. (A lot of people in theater will tell you they started this way too.) My dining room was my stage. My living room was where the audience sat on the sofa, on armchairs, and lawn chairs. Small children happily sat on the floor. When sold out-and we always were-we held an audience of thirty. We charged one dollar at the door. Everyone in the show was paid in equal shares. My grandmother typed our “flyers” one at a time on an old IBM electric. I wrote, produced, and staged the shows. Actors and crew were kids in the neighborhood. Paper for flyers aside, our cost was zip. We found and made what we needed. Our audiences had a great time. You might even say we were serving the community. No one had to worry about parking. We worked hard on those shows, yet it never felt like work. We had fun, as did our audiences. As children, we knew exactly how to play. Pun intended.
If you see a few dozen plays this year, one thing will be apparent. You can’t buy great theater. If you could, every Broadway show would be a hit and would run forever.
This brings us to an uncomfortable truth regarding the staging of plays. It’s hugely important that we honor our theater artists by paying them the best we can; there is no question that our society undervalues artists, and pays, sadly, accordingly. But -and here it is – money does not guarantee good art.
I’ve worked on well over a hundred productions in D.C. and New York City. I would say that, at best, half the shows were good or great. The other half, politely put, left room for improvement. I have some ideas about why good work does or does not happen. But in the end, it’s often luck. Some shows just seem to come together, and some do not.
Think about this: Nonprofit theater as a business model means that if you sell every single seat at full price, you are still going to lose money. Theaters must raise the difference.
What happens when a company does not draw enough audience and/or raise enough money? Of course, some theater companies close. And new companies open. This is going on all the time. According to DC Theatre Scene, there are now 131 professional theaters in the D.C. metro area. Some of them are new, and some of these new companies will be gone in a few years. Luckily for us, some will not.
This may sound obvious, but every company started out as a new one. Arena Stage started in a movie theater; Woolly Mammoth, in a church; and Theater J, in the first floor of a townhouse. So the question becomes: Beyond survival, how much does a theater want to grow, and how much can it?
As theaters grow, their ticket prices tend to go up. My personal favorite D.C. theater experience as an audience member was seeing Pat Carroll in Mother Courage at the Shakespeare Theatre. I have no idea how that production could have been mounted or sustained with only low-cost tickets.
So how and why does a theater do low-cost theater? And offer low-cost tickets? If you’re a producer on a micro budget, you do have freedom. Chances are, you’re in a smaller space. Everything tends to cost less. If you’ve done your budgeting correctly, you have more leeway than in a large space if almost no one comes. If you’re in a fifty-seat space and twenty-five people turn up on a Saturday night, hopefully budget-wise you’re fine. If you’re in a 250-seat space and twenty-five people come, you’re probably in some trouble.
To do low-cost theater and tickets, the game plan is straightforward. Keep costs down. Stay on budget. Don’t try to grow quickly or at all. It’s not for everyone. I love to put on plays. I’ve worked for numerous theaters and have always been grateful for the paycheck, the health insurance, and a job I usually loved going to. Yet if I had left any of these companies and gone to work in corporate America, my salary likely would have doubled.
I know a woman in New York whose ex-husband is, alas, a deadbeat dad. She had a son to put through college. So she left a large well-known nonprofit theater to work for IBM. She found her hours working in any given week were literally half what they had been, and her salary doubled!
My point is that if you’re working for a theater company of any size and budget, you as an employee are subsiding the cost of a theater ticket. With your skill set you are making less than you could doing something else. So beyond donors – meaning foundations and individuals – a nonprofit theater is subsidized by virtually everyone working in it. Which means that an eighty-dollar ticket is still that theater’s version of a low-cost ticket.
There are now in D.C. large numbers of young people (I meet them all the time) who are starting new theaters. Or putting on individual shows. And they are, more than ever, following two tracks: working for a large theater company, and also putting on plays by any means necessary. What they are not doing is spending a lot of money. They don’t have it. The tickets tend to run twenty dollars or less.
I’ll let you in on a professional secret: When you have a group of theater artists who feel they must put on a show, have some ability, and work really hard, sooner or later you’re likely to see some great theater. Remember what theater needs at a minimum: a play, actors, and an audience. I hope you’ll see lots of shows this year.
American Ensemble Theater’s new season:
– a reading of Martin Blank’s recent play Closing Time at the Page-to-Stage Festival, Sept 3 at 1pm . Free
– Bobby Gould in Hell by David Mamet, May 25 to June 9 at CHAW . $10
– a reading of The Pirate Laureate of Port Town by Zachary Fernebok, June 6 . $3
Martin Blank is currently Artistic Director for American Ensemble Theater. He is the author of ten plays and is published by Smith & Kraus. He has served as Artistic Associate for the American Jewish Theatre and American Place Theatre, New York City, as well as Literary Manager, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Founding Artistic Director, Theater J.