In the July 12 Reader, Mr. Penn makes several strong points regarding theater comps [Letters]. However, though his central thesis is accurate (too many Annie Oakleys are given out and those involved in a play should not make short shrift of their work by thinking that if they build it no one will come unless it's for free), his remarks tend to show a lack of understanding as to how theater works and what it must do simply to survive. In fact, he sounds like a Republican blaming every iota of the nation's ills on welfare mothers.
I'm not sure where to begin since Mr. Penn makes a Heinz ketchup variety of points. But to start, I and my friends had a hearty laugh over his statement that he knows it is "entirely possible to see almost any off-Loop show for free" because he has heard people "brag about it." Mr. Penn, the word brag in itself denotes hyperbole and any statement made under such testosteronic influences should be treated at least with a pretense of incredulity. In fact, I would love to watch these same Milos Gloriosuses just try to get a comp to Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Candlelight, etc. These theaters are very stingy about their passes and they are not to be gotten as easily as a salted peanut with a cocktail (to paraphrase Margo Channing). And as for the other off-Loop theaters, Mr. Penn implies that all one has to do is walk in the door and they'll be only too glad to red carpet you a seat. I should be so lucky.
It's not that Mr. Penn is totally wrong. One can get into a play by knowing someone in a production. But as small as the theater community is in Chicago, it is not so small that someone can know enough people in enough productions to get into just any one they want.
I must also take umbrage with his statement that "comps are just free tickets" as being the "myth of the ages." Mr. Penn is misleading here because he implies that by not charging for tickets, a theater is taking the money out of the mouths of actors, technicians, directors, etc, acting like some sort of orphanage overseers in a Charles Dickens novel. For one thing, if a theater is equity, salaries have already been determined, and the amount of comps given out will make no difference to the actors or technicians. And as for nonequity theaters, very few I've heard of would even think of taking a more socialistic approach and increasing the salary of those involved in relation to the box-office take.
And contrary to Mr. Penn's thesis, there are actually logical and even good reasons for giving away tickets that do not translate into "basically having the producer pay [an audience] to . . . watch the show." For those theaters paying little to no wages, free tickets are a sort of salary, sometimes the only remuneration actors and technicians receive. Giving away tickets is also a method of free publicity, commonly called trying to generate word of mouth. It is not unusual for this to be the only method of publicity new theaters have, since advertising is often the most costly expenditure in a production.
Mr. Penn is also incorrect in his claim that by showering people with free tickets it "remove[s] a whole bunch of people who should have paid." Should have and would have are two different phrases. While should to would might work for theaters like Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens, where people will buy a ticket if they can't get a freebie, it won't automatically work for smaller, newer theaters (and Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens I'm sure had to go through their period of giving tickets away when they were just "my uncle has a barn, let's put on a show" newcomers).
He also says this sends out the message that free tickets can be had for the asking. Oh, pulease. Whenever I've had a free ticket and told someone, they've never been un-Miss Mannerish enough to assume they could get one as well. They'd be awfully embarrassed to try at any rate.
He also blames dependency on the NEA for all those comps. Besides stretching it a bit, the NEA's support has usually gone to theaters like the equity off-Loopers who give away the fewest comps, not the nonequity who give away the most. And the reason most theaters do their shows in basements (though saying "most" also adds a few stretch marks to his arguments) is because of the lack of space and/or the exorbitantly high rent charged by theaters so that even if you had a hit and sold out every night you'd still be lucky to cover expenses. Financing theater is more complicated than Mr. Penn thinks.
Yes, there are serious problems in the theater community to be addressed, but I hardly think that getting rid of most comps will solve the problem. Could the difficulties perhaps lie elsewhere? For example, my experience has been that new theaters tend to put all their energy into a production and none to little into selling the play and the theater, forgetting, as a friend of mine said, that there is a biz in show business. It's even getting to a point where I wonder who should be hired first, an artistic director or a business manager? It's easy to understand why this could happen since everybody wants to be in a show and nobody wants to produce. But in order for a theater to survive, it must first find people who are willing to have nothing to do with a production except the thankless jobs.
Perhaps theaters should also be putting their minds to finding new and revolutionary marketing strategies. I've been involved with productions where the producers not only didn't know the ABC's of publicity, but didn't even try to find out. Theaters must find a way to quickly get past the "Dick and Jane" approach and move on to more mature reading material, even creating their own. That's easier said than done, of course, but I find that most theaters don't even say it.
None of this even begins to address the additional problems of the economy of the country, which is not friendly towards the arts right now; the sometimes immoral high cost of rent and advertising; the inability of the theater world to get people into the habit of going to the theater as they once did; and a myriad of other problems which also must be addressed.
Mr. Penn's letter is an example of someone whose heart is in the right place and who recognizes a crisis when he sees it, but doesn't really understand the deep-rooted causes of the problem and therefore doesn't have a practical solution either. Reducing comps is a necessary and laudable goal but will not come close to solving Chicago's theater difficulties.