You might have heard about a little play that’s making some waves called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s the next iteration in the franchise that wouldn’t die, taking Harry Potter to a new medium, and I was initially really excited about it. I’m not just talking about the casting — though that’s great too — but the fact that I really love theatre, and it’s such an immersive, delightful, unique art form. There’s something magical about that hush as the lights go down, the captivation of watching the drama unfold onstage, especially in a small, intimate theatre, but even in a big one.
You are participants in an event that will come only once — sure, it will be performed over and over again, but not this precise performance, this precise moment. Theatre is rich and alive in a way that other media are not. And once upon a time, it was highly accessible to the people. Performers acted for free in front of crowds out in the open. They performed in theatres where tickets were cheap and easy to obtain, especially if you were willing to stand in the stalls. The wealthy rubbed shoulders with the poor, with everyone collectively engaging in a rather egalitarian act.
Over time, though, that began to shift, and right now, I feel like it’s reached a troubling peak. Tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child rapidly rose to stratospheric prices and shows were promptly sold out: It was an accessible art form only to those who could afford to pay, and those who could hit sales at the right moment. The same thing happened with Hamilton, where tickets began selling out within seconds of going live — and the tickets that were expensive to begin with were selling on the secondhand market for thousands of dollars.
People aren’t involved in theatre out of greed or profiteering motives. They’re in the performing arts because they love acting, or design, or tech, or any number of other aspects of the theatre. Performers aren’t the ones profiting from these ridiculously overpriced tickets and the commodification of theatre, and if anything, they suffer. Because their plays and musicals are seen only by the elite few who can afford tickets, rather than by a broad cross section of the public.
The public deserves access to the arts. It’s why museums should (and most do) have free days periodically, allowing anyone who’s interested to see the collection for free, or for an optional donation. It’s why arts organizations hold festivals and other free events, to allow people to interact with the arts even if they can’t afford $280 opera tickets. It’s why some theatres sell discounted tickets to previews or hold pay what you can nights, so that people who might not be able to afford the regular asking price can still get a chance to see a performance.
Theatre is amazing and wonderful, but I fear that it’s growing stuffy and elitist, which should be contrary to everything we hold dear. In Shakespeare’s day, London’s poorest roamed the Globe alongside wealthy people who could pay for private boxes. Everyone got a fair shake at enjoying the show and theatre was better for it. So were the public, who got the experience of being immersed in a story, of watching people play with language, of seeing drama or comedy or romance play out before them whether they were wealthy people seeking some escape or poor people looking for a chance to get away from the world for a few hours.
The arts cost money — I’m not disputing this. Running a major stage production is an incredibly costly proposition, between pay for the actors, covering the costs of the stage management and tech crews, paying for costumes and sets and lighting and music and painting and props and all the incidentals of running a stage production. And that’s before the costs of maintaining the theatre, keeping the lights and heat on, promoting the show, paying the house staff. It’s why most theatres rely on donations and support from sponsors and grants, because otherwise tickets would have to be shockingly expensive, and that’s no good for anyone.
Increasingly, theatre feels like an elitist, middle to upper class pursuit. When I’m in New York, the epicentre of American theatre, I really do make a good faith effort to catch a play or two — but the last few years, I haven’t been able to, because it’s been so expensive, or because I’ve missed out on the incredibly narrow window to buy tickets. Objectively speaking, I’m hardly poor, so if I can’t afford to see theatre, what does that say about a huge swath of Americans who make less than I do and might be interested in catching a show? If you want to see a major production in any big city, you’re potentially looking at hundreds of dollars, with only small regional and community theatres offering tickets at vaguely affordable prices.
But people shouldn’t be limited when it comes to the kind of theatre they see, and I’m not trying to diss regional theatres, here. A lot of them put on amazing dance and theatre productions, from classical ballet to opera to musicals to Shakespeare to experimental theatre to any number of other things. But there’s no reason that Broadway productions should be as expensive as they are, except that somehow theatre has become this elitist experience available to only a few, with the cost and rarity of tickets being treated almost like a cause for bragging rights instead of one for concern.
Why shouldn’t poor children of color be able to see Hamilton, and witness a production that has had a profound impact on US theatre, society, and racial culture? Why shouldn’t a Deaf kid be able to see the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening? We’re depriving people of the arts as we turn theatre into a prestige event instead of something for the people, and that troubles me.
Image: Civic Theatre, Duane Weller, Flickr