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The Dark Side of Subscriptions

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To the editors:

For what seems like eons, Danny Newman [Letters, July 27] has been the undisputed world champion salesman of subscriptions. But reading his pitch today makes me think of that other famous salesman--Willy Loman. Must attention still be paid here? Yes, subscriptions have helped the performing arts to flourish in America in the last thirty years. But in recent years the crippling effects of subscriptions have become clearer, and now more and more seem to be artistically life-threatening.

Subscriptions provide money to theatres up front, but they require a set schedule of productions to make sure subscribers get all that they paid for. Over the years, this has led to many successful productions closing before they were ready to do so, and many less than successful shows having to play out a set run when subscribers, and frequently the actors too, clearly are having a miserable time. And how did these productions end up on stage in the first place? It seems that subscriptions have led to one, two and sometimes more productions in a season ending up on the roster not because they grew out of the desires or the imaginations of the artists, but merely because there was another slot that needed to be filled.

Many subscribers are indeed "saintly" and supportive, as Mr. Newman attests. But it is no secret that scores of others have responded to the bargain, the hype and the choice seats rather than the work itself. Often they bring little or no emotional investment to what is perceived not as a new play by August Wilson or Rick Cleveland, but rather as "Play #2" or "Play #3." For all their "slothful, fickle" ways, single-ticket buyers make a conscious choice to see a particular work. This makes a huge difference in the communication between actors and audience that is so crucial a part of the theatre.

Subscriptions also require of the purchaser money up front--sometimes a lot of money. At Mr. Newman's Lyric Opera, a pair of subscriptions averages $700, and at the Goodman, Steppenwolf and other theatres $240 or more is not uncommon. At those prices, subscriptions are inevitably being marketed to, and purchased by, people whose annual salaries are, well, up there. What about the rest of the world? If we continue to target our marketing only to those who can afford this price tag up front, the theatre will become even more of a luxury item than it is already, its audiences classified by one predominant characteristic: they are rich. Opera may be a different story, but if theatre is to survive it must reflect the economic and cultural diversity of the city and the world around it. Otherwise it will die as the subscribers do.

I hope Mr. Newman realizes that Remains Theatre has existed for more than ten years without subscriptions but still with loyal and intelligent audiences, sometimes large, sometimes small. This coming season we are lowering our ticket prices to $10 across the board, to attract a wider and more diverse audience, rather than just a richer one. Audiences at Remains won't get one play free, as Newman-inspired brochures have promised time and time again over the years--they'll get all plays cheap. And hopefully the theatre can become a part of the lives of more and different people, as it is in many other countries around the world.

Larry Sloan

Director

Remains Theatre

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