In June, 1983 a twin birthday party was given high
in an office building overlooking New York's Times Square. Fifteen years
ago that month, an organization was born whose purpose was to make theatre
more accessible to more people than it had ever been. Called Theatre Development
Fund (TDF) and guided by former executive director Hugh Southern (now with
the NEA) and president Anna E. Crouse (widow of Russel Crouse, co-author
of Life with Father and many other hits), the fledgling group slowly
set about establishing itself. Faced with a dwindling entertainment industry
and skyrocketing ticket prices, a dedicated and inspired band of troupers
began to ask questions: how to fill empty theatre seats? how to generate
new and younger audiences? how to assist playwrights and producers to bring
about new productions, and keep running productions running longer?
how to bring new vitality not only to Broadway, but to Off Broadway, Off-Off
Broadway, and the sibling dimensions of music and dance? how to rejuvenate
the increasingly seedy theatre section of New York? how to put the daring
(and often trying) experiments conducted there at the service of theatre
lovers in other cities?
In the same month of June five years later, in 1973, TDF
spawned a new set of initials which were to become far better known throughout
the land. TKTS (pronounced "tix") is the booth in Duffy Square
where Seventh Avenue and Broadway intersect. It is open seven days a week
and, in selling tickets at half price on the day of the performance, it has
become the most visible of TDF's activities. Other theatre centres have been
established in Lower Manhattan (1974) and Brooklyn (1983) and (also this
year) the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation engaged TDF to operate its
newly opened half-price Music & Dance Booth directly behind the main
Public Library. The new facility will handle only tickets for music and dance
events, leaving the theatre sector exclusively to the previously existing
In 1972 the New York City Cultural Council formed a theatre
committee and Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed Anna Erskine Crouse to choose
a group of committee members from all segments of the New York theatre. The
deepening problems facing the theatre had recently been brought into focus
in Eugene R. Black's and William J. Baumol's disturbing Study of the New
York Theatre. (Baumol, Professor of Economics at Princeton University,
also co-authored with William G. Bowen the Twentieth Century Fund study entitled
Performing Arts-The Economic Dilemma.) It seemed clear that government
funding would ultimately be required to sustain an institutional effort,
but to qualify one needed a track record, and to acquire such a record one
needed seed funding. Tirelessly and with titanic patience, Anna Crouse and
Hugh Southern raised funds from enlightened corporations, foundations, neighborhood
businesses, and involved individuals like Harold Prince, Neil Simon, Irving
Berlin and others. On June 25, 1973, TDF opened its first TKTS booth. Anna
Crouse recalls: "Business was steady from the start, but below the necessary
number of ticket sales to carry expenses of box office treasurers, manager,
runners, porter, telephones, printing, insurance and security. By late summer
the Centre was breaking even. By winter it was showing a small profit. Its
greatest achievement, however, was what it did for the city and for the theatre;
an average of 8,500 a week stood in rain, snow, cold, and summer heat to
buy a ticket for the theatre. This ticket buyer is younger and poorer than
the regular Broadway ticket buyer. For the most part, this ticket buyer is
a totally new audience."
Producers were quick to respond to the new sales outlet and
even the most wary and conservative of them soon realized that income, even
reduced, is better than no income; and that an applauding body in a seat
lends a moral boost which every actor seeks and no empty seat can provide.
Theatre managements thus send blocks of unsold tickets on the day of a performance
to the TKTS booths. (The Duffy Square booth is an unused city trailer ingeniously
redesigned for the purpose.) Naturally, tickets to sold-out hit plays are
not posted on the boards, but it must be borne in mind that even the greatest
hits were unknown quantities before they opened, and were able to enjoy longer
runs than could ever have been achieved without TDF's theatre centres. Thus,
in the 1981-82 season the Times Square and Wall Street booths sold 1,811,859
tickets to plays, dance events, music and opera to a total of 206 productions
in the amount of $24,904,252. It is easy to see that "queuing up"
has become a favorite outdoor pastime in New York. And no wonder: people
love the spirit of adventure, the festive and informal atmosphere, and, of
course, the attractive bargains. Tickets are made available at half price
plus a modest per ticket service charge.
But, while the public is aware principally of TKTS, the ticket
booths are but a part of TDF's imaginative activities. The fact is that the
theatre subsidy program predates TKTS and remains one of TDF's chief functions.
Each season, a committee from the board of directors chooses a number of
plays which, in their opinion, merit financial assistance. Theatre goers
will have noted the following acknowledgement in program booklets: "The
producers wish to express their appreciation to the Theatre Development Fund
for its support of this production." Since commercial theatre is entirely
self-sustaining and without recourse to outside funding, the risks involved
are particularly high. The theatre subsidy program provides a measure of
assistance to plays of artistic merit through the purchase of tickets in
advance of opening, thus giving a production an opportunity to establish
itself during previews and the initial period after the official opening.
TDF has developed a restricted mailing list of students,
teachers, union members, retired persons, clergy, performing arts professionals,
and members of the armed forces. At present, roughly 130,000 recipients are
offered information about current theatrical, musical and dance events, as
well as the opportunity of purchasing tickets at high discounted rates. TDF
purchases tickets at $7.25 each for a drama and $7.75 for a musical, and,
in turn, makes them available to people on its mailing list for $5.75 and
$6.25 respectively. Over $677,000 for 92,600 admissions to twenty productions
was provided by this program during the 1981-82 season. Non-subsidy tickets
are also made available to persons on the mailing list, for plays which are
not otherwise subsidized by TDF, and in this category approximately 330,000
admissions to 206 productions in 1981-82 accounted for over $1.5 million
in gate receipts.
A refreshing aspect of TDF's philosophy is the recognition
that the small, grass roots effort in the arts may be as valuable as the
multimillion dollar commercial venture. The current Annual Report clearly
states that "the health and vitality of artistic life in the city is
sustained, nurtured, and developed through the hundreds of small, but important,
performing arts organizations that operate from lofts, churches, store fronts
and small theatres throughout the five boroughs." With these in mind,
the Performing Arts Voucher program was established. People on the TDF mailing
list are eligible to purchase vouchers at $2.50 each in sets of five. The
voucher is an open ticket that, when accepted by a performing group for admission,
is redeemed by TDF for $4. Any performing arts organization is eligible to
accept vouchers if it is not-for-profit and has a professional orientation.
TDF's monthly publication, New York on Stage, is a day-by-day listing
of music, theatre, and dance events and notes the presentations for which
vouchers are honored.
The Theatre Access Project (TAP), begun in 1979, has as its
goal to provide access to the performing arts for the disabled-the hearing,
visually, and physically impaired.
The purpose of The Costume Collection is to provide costumes
to not-for-profit performing arts and educational organizations at low cost.
More than 50,000 costumes are housed at The Collection. In addition to its
rental services, The Collection offers a fully -equipped workroom to organizations
that wish to have costumes made but that lack the facilities to do so. In
most cases, costumes made in The Collections's workroom revert to TDF and
increase the number of costumes available to other renting organizations.
As originators of these many pilot programs in the performing
arts, TDF has become an invaluable consultant to other cities wishing to
establish similar projects. The National Planning and Management Services
Department exists specifically to assist and advise in all phases of program
development, research, planning, design, implementation, fund-raising, administration
and evaluation. Other cities which have availed themselves of TDF's expertise
have included Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto, Washington,
Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Miami, London
and even Tokyo.
Of particular interest at this time will be the success of
the Bryant Park facility given over to music and the dance. In New York City
which, in addition to sustaining its many performing organizations, plays
host to innumerable touring artists and ensembles, over-saturation has been
called a problem. And yet, when one considers the number of people in the
Greater Metropolitan area, there are sufficient potential audiences to fill
every seat to every performance many times over. The question is how to stimulate
people to attend, and the first step to stimulus is the adroit dissemination
of information. TDF has certainly made a strong start towards that end in its 15-year history, and a spokesman for Lincoln Center has stated that they are looking forward to participating in TDF projects with great hope and enthusiasm. Since the Bryant Park booth will also offer
rock and pop tickets, it is thought that a good deal of cross-fertilization may take place and that customers, not getting into one performance, will choose another.
Nor is TDF content to rest on its laurels. Constant questioning
concerning the needs of today and tomorrow seems an integral part of its
philosophy. A training program for potential producers is being developed.
A project for playwrights is on the drawing boards, and it is emphasized
again and again that the initial impulse for the theatre must come from the
creative imagination. Henry Guettel is TDF's new executive director. It is
surely no coincidence that his experience has been unusually broad-based.
He has been affiliated with dance companies and music theatre, he has produced,
and he has worked in both opera and film, his last position being senior
vice-president of 20th Century Fox. For him and for his colleagues, each
of the three initials represents a credo: Theatre, Development, and the Funding
to make it all possible.
TDF was the first and remains the only organization which
concerns itself with both commercial and non-commercial performing arts.
But then, as a recent executive director's report states, a "supposedly
`commercial' system that can present works as adventurous and diverse as
THE ELEPHANT MAN and SWEENEY TODD, and can, besides, continue to attract
venture capital without subsidy or tax preference, has still a vitality and
resilience that cannot be denied."