The American theatrical dream and its costs

Gigi talks about the difference in systems between American Theatre and British Theatre sectors. 

The American theatrical dream and its costs

Living in London, theatre is on your doorstep with opportunities to experience theatre in inexpensive ways. Rush tickets, schemes, 16-25 tickets, Young Patron schemes, lotteries and the increasing accessibility of the subsidised sector means I’ve been lucky enough to see a huge variety of theatre for little. For example, I paid £10 for Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre through their Friday rush ticket schemes (which was a fantastic stalls seat) and I paid £5 to see 21st Century Choreographers at the Royal Ballet who perform at the Royal Opera House.

The cost of theatre in the United States is extortionate. Even within a more subsidised area such as Washington DC, the prices are unaffordable for students. I can certainly see how fortunate I am to live in a country where, whilst it threatens the arts, there is a system cultivated incorporating the need for accessibility even though there is more work to be done.

Especially in DC, a low-income area made up of students, immigrants and what we’d call working-class families, theatre and the arts surely should be made to fit the community. 

What I have seen is incredible access to culture and art through the Smithsonian and museums. The Smithsonian’s are a collection of museums mostly in DC with some in Virginia and New York that are free to enter and rely on subsidised government funding, donation and sponsorship. Which is how a lot of non-west end theatre in the UK is funded, if through a flawed system.

American theatre can rely on, especially regionally, subscriptions to the theatre rather than tickets. This system is like a season ticket rather than a membership that we may have in some theatres in the UK (which incidentally a lot of regional theatres across the US are switching to now) such as the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. 

"That subscription model has been failing… so this is a way to respond to something that has probably needed to be responded to for decades. And the pandemic has certainly amplified that,” executive artistic director Robert Barry Fleming told WFPL News in October

While subscriptions and memberships rely on the consumer having consistent wages/employment, the system is still an integral part of how theatres make money as it is guaranteed for the year. But with the pandemic, it proved difficult with the introduction of virtual seasons or programming. It does bring in less money but it does important work.

This can be seen in the UK with the National Theatre at Home streaming and the Old Vic. The weekly streams may not have brought in a huge amount of money like a normal performance, but it did allow for accessibility and perhaps, until there is more financial equity in the world, that may be the way to go to ensure everyone sees brilliant pieces of theatre. Especially when it’s proved the arts can be a hugely therapeutic tool as well as a way to get young people off the streets. (A research report by The Flavasum trust in collaboration with the Comedy School which is linked below details just how that is possible.)

Virtual shows across both sides of the pond increased accessibility to the arts. Those who couldn’t travel or afford to were now able to see theatre from across the country for very little. It allows those with disabilities to see productions that have subtitles or commentary or to be in their own homes without the sometimes overwhelming theatrics of a show. It also allowed young people to see theatre they may not think they’re interested in. It may not be a sustainable financial model but it did enable a conversation to be had about getting more people to engage in theatre.

I spoke to two of my fellow students at Catholic University who are both American and have had completely different access to the arts – theatre especially. 

Ash Samuels (a senior social work major) spoke to me about their experience watching a ballet at the Kennedy Centre.

They spoke of their grandparents having season passes which give you a set of free tickets. Ash was given those tickets for the ballet for the premium orchestra which is our central stalls.

I asked him about the demographic watching and they talked about how the show featured black dancers, so the demographic reflected who was on stage. 

As Ash said, ‘There were many people of colour in the audience as well as young people and the demographic of the Kennedy Center is not normally this diverse’. 

Tickets can cost up to $298 with some shows like Hamilton at the Kennedy Centre pricing up to $400 per seat. Compared to the UK (all price costs from the 2021-2022 season), the most expensive ticket at the Royal Opera House, a fair equivalent to the Kennedy Centre, is a cost of £135 for ‘Mayerling’. Hamilton is equally expensive (£175-200) due to the popularity of the show, which is an exception. Many West End shows have £120 tickets as their top band. 

In DC, a diverse, low-income city, especially in the south and north east where my university is situated, it is shocking to me that there are few incentives to help broaden the outreach to get more affordable tickets into the theatre. 

Ash said, ‘if there were incentives or student tickets, I would definitely go and see more theatre.’ 

Something we also talked about was regional arts. 

Ash talked about how in Tampa, Florida, ‘there is a state orchestra where I go to concerts all the time as musicians get free tickets and they give them away or tickets can cost $40 or less’. 

It’s clear that there are some organisations around the country trying to make the arts more affordable. There are also teachers' schemes where they can get cheaper tickets and there are some 50% off schemes for those with low income which I’ve seen in DC. 

In comparison, getting student discounts in DC is almost ‘underground’ and few people know how to get them. However, I was able to see Nextstop Theatre Company’s Little Women for free because I’m a student and knew some of the cast.

It’s not to say that our system in the UK isn’t deeply flawed. The Arts Council funding is getting increasingly and more significantly reduced and unable to reach all the smaller companies that do important local, grassroots or rural work. While a lot of art galleries and museums in the UK are free, and a majority of theatre is subsidised, where the funding goes and how the structures work can be ineffective. 

I also spoke to senior musical theatre major Carolyn Tachoir, who studied at Rose Bruford last semester. Carolyn gave me a first-hand comparison of the two countries theatre sectors. Carolyn and I talked about the price of tickets and the cheapest one she’s seen. 

“The cheapest seat I’ve ever had that wasn’t free was $39 for The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. I’ve gotten a few free tickets here and there through school trips. The most expensive ticket was a Broadway ticket for sure; I don’t know what show specifically, but I do know that I have paid between $120-140 for a ticket.” 

She said that if prices were more affordable for a broader range of work she would definitely see more plays and tours. She’s never seen the National Ballet but would love to. 

Carolyn also spoke about how regional theatre is “a readily accessible form of work” for her as a performer. “There is also much being done to nurture new talent.‘Growing up in Pittsburgh, there were masterclasses at the CLO Academy with members of the touring companies that would stop there. Sometimes even provide discounted student tickets with talkbacks.”

We spoke about how diversity and accessibility can be improved in American theatre. Carolyn recalled being in London and seeing a huge variety of work for little cost, particularly theatres off the West End. 

“The most I paid for a ticket in the UK was $60.” The work and casts were hugely diverse with much more experimental work. She spoke about how body type diversity needs to be improved and also how the cost is geared towards the rich. “Tickets are higher than they have ever been and even the ‘student rush tickets’ are $70-$99. Theatre should be available to any and everyone who wishes to see a show.”

I think Carolyn’s answers speak for themselves. While the UK has so much more to do to make theatre more affordable, we nurture a huge breadth of work and theatre is so much more affordable. The subsidised sector makes the West End more affordable and this needs to be protected. Theatre is so important for our wellbeing as well as one of the biggest economies in the UK. It’s about time our government saw its power.


Gigi Downey

Gigi Downey Contributor

I am a third year actor at Rose Bruford College as well as a director, musician and writer. After completing my Gold Arts Award in February 2018 at 16, I joined my Arts Award organisation Babylon Arts as a steward and duty manager and I've done other teaching and facilitation work as well as working in theatre such as guest experience, bartender, box office admin and on the stage. I'm currently in the United States studying musical theatre and preparing to write a dissertation on, in broad terms, how theatre explores consent and desire.

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