The space and conventions around a live performance determine whether it is fundamentally inclusive or exclusive.  When an arts organization or producer decides to charge $100 for a ticket, and another decides to put on a show for free, either performance can be “legitimate” and draw a large crowd, if the conventions of the space and the event harmonize with that price, or absence of price.

Here is a photo from a live show earlier this week: She and Him, at Millennium Park in Chicago, on June 7, 2010.  A Monday night.  The admission price of $0.00 did not have a negative impact on the turnout.

She and Him performed on Sunday, June 6, 2010, in Royal Oak, Michigan, for a ticket price of $24 in advance, $29 at the door.

The Sunday show sold out.

The Monday show was incapable of selling out.  There were no tickets.  There was no line dividing inside from outside.

The conversation about pricing often centers on low-price tickets versus high-price tickets.

But the differences in the experience of these two performances, which were otherwise basically the same concert, are the conventions of tickets, entryways, velvet ropes, and ushers (or, in the case of a concert venue, bouncers): human and physical barriers that separate the outside world from the inside world, and separate the event from the world outside.

These are fundamentally two different types of events.  Joe Papp knew this.  If free Shakespeare performances were held at the Public Theater, instead of Central Park, the audience would receive confusing signals: free tickets, but an event in a space designed step by step to separate itself from the “rest of the world.”

He knew how to draw a crowd by establishing theatergoing conventions that matched his intention, show by show, to include or exclude.

It’s easy to produce free and cheap theater and pull a contented audience, if the space and experience are designed around emphasizing inclusion.

The new Apple store in Manhattan is steps away from Avery Fisher Hall.  Is a recital in the former by Leif Ole Andsnes any less legitimate?  Looks like these folks didn’t think so.

Meanwhile, it would be fair enough for a citizen to complain about a $29 show in Central Park or Millennium Park.  After all, it’s public land, maintained by taxpayer dollars.

If a public library, or a church, one day decided to charge even $5 for admission, I can’t imagine its patrons taking it well. 

A theater can align itself with other community not-for-profit organizations, or it can be an exclusive space.  Either case sets patron expectations.  But foundations and others who support 501(c)3 not-for-profit organizations should be appalled at the idea of an institution charging high prices not out of necessity, but simply because its leaders believe that the audience won’t “get” or “like” the show unless it costs an arm and a leg.

  • June 10, 2010
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