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The Subscription Revolution

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To the editors:

Lewis Lazare, the Reader's excellent "The Culture Club" columnist, comments (in the July 6 issue) upon the Remains Theater decision to forego subscription for the inaugural season in its new Clybourn Avenue playhouse. He speaks of this as a "new approach," and says that the management "deserves a salute for trying something new." Lazare, being young, obviously doesn't know that operating sans subscribers is not something new. In fact, that was the established, old way of doing it, even if it didn't work.

And, that is why, as recently as 1961, there wasn't a single resident professional theatre in the Chicago area (the Goodman was then a drama school), and only four such companies in the nation. It wasn't that such projects didn't open. They constantly opened. The problem was that they closed summarily, unable to attract those "slothful, fickle" single ticket buyers (who I have by now excoriated on five continents) in sufficient numbers.

Lewis Lazare quotes local theatre executives, as follows: "without subscribers Remains will be under pressure to present hit productions every time." Well, pressure, or no pressure, that is impossible, and that is why from 1961 on, with the tremendous impetus of the dynamic subscription promotion revolution--there has been this incredible burgeoning of the resident professional theatres (I do not call them regional theatres, which is a pejorative designation invented by New York journalists to describe theatres west of the Hudson), making possible the more than 400 such companies now in this country, with a similarly dramatic expansion having occurred North of the border, too, for the same reason.

Theoretically, but not likely, Remains could "make it" without subscription, especially if it, somehow, did ring the "hit bell" every time out. But where will its contributor support come from? Single ticket buyers--when and if they show up--are notoriously impervious to fund appeals, while a great many of the "saintly season subscribers" consistently express their sense of belonging by sending contribution checks. And, does Remains have the means to keep promoting and selling every single performance of the season? It can cost as much--in money and effort--to sell a single ticket as it does a subscription, which covers the entire season.

And what about the ideological (non-economic) reasons for promoting subscription? Just take one of the reasons: the single greatest factor in educating audiences to arts attendance has been the large scale subscription drives of the past, almost thirty years, which have been a simply enormous boost to theatres, opera, symphony and dance in North America (and across the seas, too), with audiences now in the hundreds--and in some cases, thousands--of percent greater than in the past. All of the other efforts--like bringing arts into the classroom (commendable though that may be) had failed dismally to meet the need.

Danny Newman

Lyric Opera of Chicago

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