August 2, 2008

To Subscribe or Not To Subscribe...That Is Now the Question for True Theater Lovers

After all these years of theatergoing, I just had a first-time experience: I signed up for a subscription series. In fact, I subscribed to two: The Public Theater's and the Signature Theatre's.

I’m not sure what took me so long to take advantage of this smart way of seeing plays and supporting the companies that produce them. Subscriptions are great for theater lovers like me, because you not only get first crack at seats to the most anticipated shows but other goodies like newsletters, invitations to receptions with cast members and cheaper ticket prices. And they’re also great for the theater companies because they get a pot of upfront money that makes it easier for them to manage their budgets and keep their operations running.

If you see enough off-Broadway or regional theater, your mailbox has probably been filled over the past few weeks with brochures touting various company’s new seasons and all the benefits of subscribing to them. Prices for New York-based packages run from a mighty $1,800 for the Champions Circle at 2econd Stage Theatre (it includes two premium seats to every production, invitations to three opening night performances and cast parties and “recognition in our 43rd Street theatre for one year”) to the Atlantic Theater Company's $55 membership fee that buys you the right to pay no more than $25 for any its shows.

The Public and Signature are two of my favorite companies. I love the Public because its programming is so diverse and adventurous and the Signature because its focus on a singular oeuvre allows me to really dig into one artistic vision. So I’d like to say that I subscribed to them because I wanted to show my appreciation and support. But the truth is that I signed up for far more selfish reasons.

When my pal Bill first suggested that we sign up for the Public, I turned him down. But then I realized that the season includes the new production of Bounce, the Stephen Sondheim musical that has been literally bouncing around in various incarnations over the past decade. Having seen a couple of those earlier versions, I wanted to make sure I could get a seat for this one. And my subscription will guarantee that.

Two years ago, I missed out on the entire season the Signature dedicated to August Wilson because I figured I’d just get tickets for each individual show. But the word-of-mouth was so good and the $20 ticket price (subsidized by Time Warner) so low that all the performances sold out before I could even get to one. This year, Signature is devoting its season to works that were originally produced by The Negro Ensemble Company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. I remember seeing each work when it premiered and I want to be sure that I can see them again. And a subscription guarantees me that too.

So it’s good for me and for the folks at those companies who now know that whatever kind of reviews their shows get, they’ve already sold seats to me, Bill and their other subscribers. But I also worry about the future of subscriptions. Earlier this year, I heard Todd Haimes, artistic director of The Roundabout Theatre Company, which has over 40,000 subscribers, say that a growing number of the most loyal theatergoers are turning to discount clubs like Theatermania which offers reduced-price tickets to individual shows instead of requiring a commitment to a full season. That may eventually affect the steady flow of cash that the companies depend on. Others fret that the companies are already starting to program the way commercial producers do, opting for choices that will appeal to the largest number of people instead of presenting riskier fare.

We clearly need non-profit theaters. And we need them to be adventurous. They need subscriptions. But I’m just not sure what my role here should be. Should I use my limited dollars to subscribe to a bunch of companies? Or should I buy tickets to the shows that I most like, which often tend to be the edgier productions that wouldn't get commercial runs, to encourage them to continue that kind of programming? I really would love to hear from those of you who subscribe and those of you don’t about why and how you’ve made that choice. In the meantime, I am looking forward to a season full of trips to the Public and Signature.


Esther said...

Now that I'm starting to go regularly to the theatre in my hometown, I've thought of subscribing.

Sunday matinees are the best time for me to go, so what I usually do is stop by the theatre a couple hours in advance and pick up a $15 rush ticket. I feel a little guilty because I could well afford to pay full price, which would be about $50.

And one time last fall, I was too smart for my own good. I missed out on seeing "All the King's Men" because all the Sunday matinees were sold out! So when there was a show I didn't want to miss in the spring, I did buy a full-price ticket.

So I guess I'm torn. I know it's important to support my local institutions, but I also know that most of the time, I can pop into the box office at noon and I won't have a problem getting a rush ticket. I suppose I can rationalize it by saying that at least I'm filling a seat that would otherwise go empty.

Jon88 said...

“recognition in our 43rd Street theatre for one year”

So, what, they put your name on the wall, but they use an erasable marker?

Anonymous said...

I like to subscribe to companies for both reasons: I know it's important to support the group, but I also don't want to miss out on great shows. That's why I subscribed to the Signature Theater for the August Wilson season and again this year for the Negro Ensemble Theater shows (saw "The First Breeze of Summer" yesterday).

I was once a Roundabout subscriber for many years. I loved it because my husband and I were able to see "Caberet" with Natasha Richardson at the "Kit Kat Club" and "1776" and lots of other great stuff.

However Roundabout lost me when they presented a couple of seasons' worth of truly horrible productions. When I had to poke my husband one too many times to stop him from snoring, I decided we were done subscribing to the Roundabout!

I do miss it, though, and I still get the brochure but it's been more than 5 years now and they have yet to present a season that would entice me to buy the whole series. I'll keep hoping...

Anonymous said...

Well, just a few days after I posted the above, the Roundabout called and made me an offer I couldn't refuse! My choice of 3 plays for $189, no taxes, no handling charges. I thought this was an excellent deal so I picked:
--A Man for All Seasons
--Pal Joey
--Hedda Gabler

My husband and I are both looking forward to the season. Now I have Roundabout tickets, Signature Theater tickets and a ticket to see "Equus" in October. Yay!