When we talk about accessibility in theatre, the conversation invariably strays towards the ever-increasing price of theatre tickets, rendering the experience of seeing professional theatre in New York largely untenable for the majority of tourists and residents alike. We all know theatre is too expensive and ticket prices should be reduced for the sake of democratizing the industry, but it’s a thornier issue than we’ve been led to believe. Before I started working in commercial theatre management, I would rail against exorbitant ticket prices at every turn, accusing producers of hiking them up to suit their own interests and demanding prices be slashed as the simplest solution. While I still firmly believe that ticket prices should be reduced by at least half in every theatre in the city, I’ve come to understand that there’s a crucial cause and effect at play here—one that necessitates a lot of institutional change before we can start to see more patron-friendly prices across the board.
The costs of creating theatre have risen exponentially in the past several decades, primarily due to ludicrously high technological expenses; even the simplest effects and sets that you might see on a New York stage are buttressed by hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of machinery, automation, and stagehand labor. A $5 ticket in the “Golden Age” of Broadway was possible because shows simply cost far, far less to produce, even if we adjust for inflation.
As we know, producing a show in a commercial venue isn’t cheap; the average Broadway musical capitalizes at around $12 million. Given these prohibitively expensive production costs, as well as the fact that at least three-quarters of shows on Broadway don’t recoup, is it any wonder that producers charge so much for seats? Though it’s true that investors are statistically very likely to lose their money no matter how high or low tickets are priced, since any given show is unlikely to recoup, the very nature of commercial theatre dictates that producers will make every attempt to get a return on their investors’ money. Even a show doing very poor business, whose producers are well aware of the financial disaster awaiting them, will charge just as much as Wicked or The Lion King in hopes of returning at least a small chunk of the capitalization to their investors.
Of course, Broadway is hardly the only arena in which high ticket prices abound. Off-Broadway and the many flourishing non-profit theatre companies in New York typically charge anywhere from $70-100 for a single ticket (the average price of a rear mezzanine seat on Broadway), which seems incongruous with how comparatively little money these theatres actually put into their productions. Since non-profit theatres rely mostly on donations and subscribers to stay afloat—which are rarely sufficient to keep even the most prominent companies in the city from operating in the red—they need to squeeze every last bit of money out of regular ticket sales to maximize revenue.
If there’s one ubiquitous trend we can discern amidst this crisis of ticket inflation, it’s that theatres and producers can no longer do this on their own. If we really want to see a significant decrease in the price of theatre tickets, which would liberate the experience of live theatre from its current status-symbol trappings, we need to focus on institutional reform and government subsidies. In fact, we should take some inspiration from the UK: the majority of theatres there receive substantial financial assistance from federal arts endowments programs, which allow them to offer an enormous number of tickets in the under $30 range. (When I studied abroad in London in college, I saw seventeen shows over a three-month period and only paid over $25 for three.) They also engage in partnerships with big business that generate a host of low-price initiatives. The National Theatre in London, for example, partnered over a decade ago with the currency exchange company Travelex to set aside a large number of £15 tickets for every performance of the season for the foreseeable future; in exchange, the National Theatre delivers “a high-brand recognition for Travelex” through various marketing campaigns and ad placements.
Though I’ve always believed the corporatism seeping its way into the theatre industry was noxious—a blight on the sacred, populist art of live theatre, if we want to get a bit sanctimonious here—perhaps we can harness it to our advantage. Big business and big government are here to stay, so why not work with them to provide resources that we theatre maker and producers can no longer acquire ourselves? In the meantime, we can consider the purchase of an outrageously expensive ticket as a charitable contribution to the art form we love so dearly.
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