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Tickets, Anyone

Times Square Theatre Centre (TKTS)

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 booths.

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."

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