When Free Ain’t Exactly Free

If you are like me, you often wondered how the Public Theatre could afford to do Shakespeare in Central Park for free for so many years. Well, it turns out it hasn’t been easy, nor has it been entirely free. An article appeared yesterday in the New York Times on this exact subject.

It turns out you can purchase tickets for reserved seating to the shows and this is not a new development. Founder Joe Papp started an audience sponsor program in 1960. The program was essentially a subscription plan where $7.50 got you reserved seats to 3 of the summer shows. According to the article, Papp felt this pricing scheme was essential for the theatre to survive.

Until recently, the theatre has downplayed the availability of the ticket program for fear of appearing too commerical. Executive Director Mara Manus has really made a push to promote the program this year. $100 gets you a reserved seat. Since the seating is free to all, the money is actually a tax deductible donation according to the website. The benefit you get is not having to stand on line and a preferred seating location.

The Public is capping the number of seats that can be reserved in this manner each night and the rest will be available for free. According to the article, “up to 19,950 of the total 79,800 seats to be occupied this summer will not be available.” The ticket program only covers 19% of the $1.9 million budget for the production this summer. “The remainder derives from foundations (24 percent), corporate donations (21 percent, which includes cash or in-kind giving by companies like J. P. Morgan and The New York Times) and the blocks of Delacorte tickets sold to businesses (16 percent). There is still a 20 percent shortfall.”

So obviously, it hasn’t been the easiest thing to do free Shakespeare all these years. Even the lofty goal of making theatre free to all has entailed selling tickets to those who will pay. I thought perhaps the Public’s other activities generated enough revenue to cover the loss of doing free Shakespeare. But it turns out it hasn’t been entirely free. Publicizing the availability of reserved tickets is a financial necessity. Ms. Mara projects that the Public will be in the black for the first time since 1998. (The Public has a $12 million budget so presumably other measures are being taken in addition to the sale of tickets at the Central Park event.)

This situation holds some interesting lessons for other theatres who try to financially support their free events. Not only will people pay for the privilege of a reserved seat at a free event, they will pay $100 for it. Essentially, people are paying as much as they would for some Broadway shows and they are doing so for a seat exposed to the elements.

I assume all the closest seating locations are taken by those who pay for their tickets no matter how long the first non-donating person has been standing on line. The theatre has 1,900 seats and up to 475 may be sold on any one night. Even though the first non-donating person will have a good seat, there could be some anger on their part if they can’t sit closer after standing on line for hours. The logic that they are getting it for free so they don’t have cause to complain about a donor getting better treatment is usually lost on people–and you have to remember, you are dealing with New Yorkers who can be a little less laid back than other folks. (Edit: Please read comment below where a reader corrects this impression.)

Even though they have been running the program for over 40 years, the fact they are heavily promoting it now means that the first non-donor in line will end up much further back than in the past. (Perhaps 400 people back vs. 100 people back in recent years.) As confounding as it may seem, the theatre could end up with a negative image for more strongly promoting a long time program so they can continue offering a show for free.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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1 thought on “When Free Ain’t Exactly Free”

  1. You are wrong in assuming that the best seats at the Delacorte go to paying customers. The public’s policy is that paid ticketholders are seated in alternate rows with freebies, so paid ticketholders may have rows 1, 3, 5 etc., but rows 2, 4, 6 etc. go to the folks who waited in line.

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