Plenty has been written on the soaring costs of seeing live theatre, especially on Broadway. Broadway has become the entertainment of the wealthy and elite, with premium tickets for the hottest shows rising to prices in the neighborhood of $10,000 (yes, really), and back-of-the house seats selling for upwards of $100. Yes, theatre is increasingly inaccessible to the middle class and the young— after all, we can’t all show up at 8 pm to wait overnight for Dear Evan Hansen standing room tickets— and while that is an important issue in and of itself, one of the biggest problems with this inaccessibility is that Broadway is pushing out its own emerging artists.
Consider your typical early-career theatre artist. We arrive fresh on the professional scene out ofour collegiate training programs— fresh and saddled tens of thousands of dollars of debt that we likely have no idea how we will actually repay. Chances are we are living in a city with a thriving theatre community such as NYC, Chicago, DC, or Boston, which means a high cost of living. We take jobs that will be flexible with auditions, rehearsal schedules, or writing and composing time, which tend to be lower-paying, as well as hourly rather than salaried. So when we give up that morning shift to maybe be seen at an EPA, we do that with the knowledge that we will not be making money that day. We scrounge up the little money we do have for acting workshops, voice lessons, practice room rentals, and weekly dance classes, not to mention the extraordinarily expensive professional tools we need. Headshots, LaDucas, headshot and resume printing, gym memberships, union and guild fees, and appropriate audition clothing easily add up into the thousands. So while rush policies are great, unfortunately, we can’t wait for hours at the box office on a Tuesday morning. We start nannying at 8 am and probably have rehearsal that night for an unpaid show we’re doing for the “experience” or— God forbid— artistic fulfillment. And frankly, that $40 ticket our entire grocery budget for the week.
I propose that Broadway and LORT theatres around the country give away unsold tickets to young artists five minutes before curtain for free. Yes, free. Let’s be real. The chance of unsold tickets actually being purchased that soon before the show starts is extremely low, even more so for expensive orchestra seats. These seats would be going to waste anyway, so what harm is there in filling them with artists who are going to be thoughtful, engaged, and respectful audience members? Isn’t it better to have actors playing to a full house?
Theatre artists NEED to be seeing high-quality theatre. It keeps the fire alive when we are cramped in a cockroach-infested apartment so we can afford to live in the city. It inspires us when we’re signing checks to pay for the education we’re wondering if we ever should have gotten in the first place. It reminds us why we’ve chosen this life when we get typed out of the audition or passed over for a seasoned professional or rejected from NYMF— again and again and again. Most importantly, we learn more about theatre from experiencing it than we ever could in a classroom. The best way for actors, directors, writers, composers, and designers to understand what makes good theatre is to experience the work of those at the top of their craft, repeatedly. To be able to experience the emotional impact of great works of American theatre and decide for ourselves what worked and didn’t work, and why. If the professional theatre and Broadway community cares about passing its tradition of excellence to the next generation, it has a responsibility to educate, include, and make itself accessible to emerging artists— and not just those whose mommies and daddies can subsidize the ticket prices.
This is not without precedent. The Dramatists Guild and Samuel French have collaborated to create a program called Playwrights Welcome, which provides unsold tickets free, day of, to Guild members at participating regional theatres. This program is fantastic and opens the door to countless stellar productions, but the catch is that this is dependent on theatres choosing to get involved. I am lucky to live in DC where most of the large professional theatres participate in this program, but we still have a few noticeable outliers— I’m looking at you, Arena Stage. In New York City, the theatre mecca of the world, only seven theaters participate, and of those seven, two only offer tickets for previews or particular productions. The onus lies on more theatres to sign up for this program and realize what sixty-two theatres across the country have already figured out: that making tickets accessible to playwrights benefits all of us.
We can’t stop there. Free tickets for dramatists are great, but what about actors, directors, stage managers, choreographers, and designers? Theatres should make free tickets available to members of all theatrical unions and guilds (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Actors Equity, Dramatists Guild, and United Scenic Artists) and those in their membership candidacy programs, like EMC. Since, depending on the type of artist, the barrier to entry for some of these organizations can be high, tickets should also be accessible to those holding undergraduate or graduate degrees in theatrical disciplines, perhaps that have been earned within the past five years. (I would like to note that while high school and college students should be able to afford theatre as well, there are already many programs in place specifically for students. Students also tend to still be financially supported by their parents. My primary concern is emerging artists on a professional track who are providing for themselves).
I understand that proving eligibility might become complicated and time-consuming at the box office— no one carries around their college diploma, after all— but if we as a community decide that this is something important, we can make it happen. Perhaps professional theatres can create a standard membership card that can be purchased for a small fee of $5 or $10 a year to all those who can prove eligibility— or better yet, provided for free or cost of printing. Imagine what could happen for our theatrical landscape if all young artists across the country were being fed a steady diet of high quality, thought-provoking theatre and if every house were a full house. Imagine.
Last weekend some friends and I dropped by the Waitress box office at 2:55 for a 3:00 matinee just to see if they miraculously had any standing room tickets left. The young man I spoke to said they were sold out of standing room but cheerfully informed me that he could offer us three great seats at $119 each. I later felt bad for this, but my knee-jerk reaction was to laugh at him. $119? That was the entirety of my bank account. We were kids trying to get $32 tickets. I guarantee you our pockets would feel a huge difference between $32 and $119. I also guarantee that not all those tickets, if any, sold in the three minutes between when we left and the curtain rose.
Giving away unsold tickets means absolutely no additional loss to the theatre beyond what’s already lost from not having sold those seats. Truly, what harm would there be in making these seats available to young artists? It’s always more inspiring to perform to a full house than having three empty seats in front of you. And that young artist is going to learn something about his or her craft from your production, which will shape and eventually enable her to contribute back to the theatre community (and by extension, economy) with her work.
Help us out, Broadway. Don’t make us have to choose between artistic fulfillment and education, affording professional tools and training, and making rent or buying groceries. Because remember. You used to be where we are now. And some day, when we are where you are, we promise you will be glad you invested in us.
Gretchen is a musical theatre performer, director, and writer originally from the Los Angeles area. She is a proud graduate of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University where she received her Bachelor of Music degree in Musical Theatre. As a performer, some favorite roles include Maria in West Side Story, Miranda in The Tempest, Artful Dodger in Oliver!, and Monteen in Parade.