Last month I spent 72 hours in New York immersing myself in the kind of theatre and visual arts not readily available in Phoenix. It was a whirlwind: four shows, one of which was an eight-hour affair, plus the Cindy Sherman and Print/Out exhibits at MoMA. Somehow I also found time to visit with family and friends, and stroll along the Highline too. Three of the four shows had recently opened on Broadway, Clybourne Park, Once, and Peter and Starcatcher, while the fourth, the one that drove my travel dates and scheduling, was the return of Gatz to the Public Theatre. In seeing all four, I noticed or was affected by several trends.
FORM: All four of the shows I saw were ensemble in nature. I’m not sure if this is a trend in the theatre generally, or a reflection of my taste. I’ve never really enjoyed theatre that features a “star” over an ensemble. Although Once clearly has two leads, the rest of the cast, also the band, also the townspeople, are on stage almost throughout the entire production. The transitions they made between characters, like those made by the actors in each of the other shows, were done in a transparent, or in some cases, foregrounded manner. Granted, the character shift the actors make in Clybourne Park happens primarily, though not exclusively, at intermission.
I’ve always enjoyed ensemble-based work and seeing four extraordinary and diverse examples thereof gave me hope that such work is more broadly accepted by contemporary audiences. But who is that audience really?
AUDIENCE: I was struck that at least three of the four audiences of which I was part included a large number of other theatre people. Maybe it was because the shows had recently opened and, being the last week of April, it was Tony voting season. My fear, though, is that even though there are a large number of insiders seeing these shows, there won’t be the general audience needed to sustain them. The audience at Once (a matinee) included several actors I recognized but do not know personally. Following that, I ran into playwrights Tony Kushner (with whom I went to grad school) and Craig Lucas, who was himself seeing Once evening. The next day, in the smaller Newman Theatre in which Gatz was playing, I knew four other audience members. Intermission conversation revealed that this really was a significantly insider audience. Theatre people seeing extraordinary theatre people doing extraordinary work.
PRICING: Gatz was also, seemingly, the hottest ticket in town. Or, at least for me, the most expensive by almost a factor of two. I was a victim of dynamic pricing. My trip was scheduled in large part to catch the penultimate weekend of this show, which I had missed in its orginal incarnation. Two hundred ninety-nine seats move fast and I got the last one – literally, the availibility chart showed only the one last seat on the end of the last row. I paid dearly for it; almost twice as much as each of the Broadway shows, where I had reasonably good seats. Not everyone seeing Gatz had paid what I had because the Public Theatre has a dynamic pricing system in place, prices go up as the seats fill and performance date approaches. Dynamic pricing is the law of supply and demand in action. Fortunately, the very kindly usher moved me to a far better seat when there was a vacancy in the middle of the fifth row. Having seen ¼ of the show from the back corner, I can tell you that the experience is substantially different (not better or worse, but different). I’m not sure I would have minded the higher ticket price for the much better seat, had I in fact paid for it. What I found interesting about the experience (of ticket buying) was that I was paying the highest price for the ticket at the nonprofit theatre. One could argue, I suppose, that at six hours (without intermission), one should pay three times what one pays for a two-hour production, but theatre is not usually priced by the hour. Ultimately, to be clear, I do not regret buying my ticket to Gatz, it was one of those transformative theatre experiences that don’t happen all that often.
NEW YORK: A native New Yorker, I visit at least once or twice a year. This time, the city was CROWDED! I don’t just mean in the theatre district, which I ceased to be able to walk through about ten years ago; the whole city seemed crowded. Not a good thing or a bad thing, just a thing. [Pictured at left, Clybourne Park is set in Chicago, not New York.]