I don't mean to be the charter member of the Playgoer fan club, but that seems to be happening lately. Or... heck, maybe he's just on a roll. Anyway Le Eisler has a post up today about ticket prices to The Coast Of Utopia at Lincoln Center, noting that he was able to see all three plays at The National for less than the price of one orchestra ticket to one of the three parts of Coast. He then writes this:
And there in a nutshell is the difference between a true state theatre and an American nonprofit theatre. I have no doubt Lincoln Center's hands are tied. To mount this enormous show at all requires a certain ticket income to not totally lose money. But I would have almost preferred to see them sell, say, the first 5 rows of the orchestra for $250 a pop, in exchange for more at $65 or less. How about a discount to those serious enough to see all three? (A mini-subscription.) I'm sure such ideas were considered and rejected for various "sound" reasons. But my point is, where there's a will there's a way. If you truly want a wide swath of people to see this, if you care most about the next generation of theatre artists possibly being inspired by seeing the most ambitious work of a major world dramatist, then you work out a price scheme and appropriate fundraising with that goal in mind.
To which the title of this post is meant to be a response. Simply put, there is no will, as far as I can tell.
Before you accuse me of being unfair, let me just say that I've met Bernie Gerstein and posed to him very specifically the questions Why are your ticket prices so high? His answer (short version): the have to be that way. And then he offered that Lincoln Center, with its custom neon signs for every show and Japanese musical toilets with seat warmers budgets everything at a bare bones budget.
He also offered the explanation that they have a high earned-to-donated income ratio. Roughly two thirds of their income is earned. That's actually pretty astounding for a non-profit of their size, and something to be proud of.
But these were explanation of how they set their ticket prices-- We look at the budgets on the shows. We take our 66-33 formula. We try to cut costs where we can, and then we set the ticket price. And that's completely reasonable. Missing from the conversation, however, is the idea that ticket prices should be lower, which tells me that they don't necessarily think they should be. That the way the world is is acceptable.
This is the problem with institutions in general. As organization become institutionalized, they take on a new mission, regardless of what their original mission was. That mission is To Keep Perpetuating The Institution No Matter What. As a result, riskier schemes that might do real good-- like trying to lower ticket prices through innovative fundraising-- aren't really considered because all risk is inherently a threat to the Institution.
This happens aesthetically as well. Lincoln Center gave us Andre Serban's Cherry Orchard. Now they do the latest Tom Stoppard. I'm not saying that Lincoln Center makes bad choices or does bad work-- actually, they have a fairly good batting average. It is to say that Lincoln Center makes conservative choices and does conservative work. They're not unique in this. BAM's Next Wave festival rutinely hosts the same artists year after year. How are very established, very well supported and very middle aged artists like Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson and Ana Theresa De Keersmacher the "Next Wave" of anything? The short answer is... they aren't. (Which isn't to say that they aren't good artists or that BAM shouldn't be presenting them).
The question is whether it's worth fighting to try to deinstitutionalize some of these places, or whether we need to work to build our anti-institutions elsewhere.