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Theater Access for the Deaf, Blind, and Autistic: New Technology, Changing Attitudes

Theaterandthedisabled1

Russell Harvard performing in Tribes

Russell Harvard performing in Tribes

Russell Harvard decided to be an actor at the age of seven when he saw his cousin playing the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. That ambition was confirmed when his aunt took him at 13 to see his first Broadway show, Cats, during its tour to their hometown of Austin. But a couple of decades later, when his aunt traveled to New York to see Harvard himself starring in Tribes, the Off-Broadway hit directed by David Cromer about a deaf man whose hearing family makes him feel excluded, she was disappointed. “This show is for hearing people,” his aunt signed to him. “She fell asleep during the show,” Harvard recalls.

Harvard’s aunt, his actress cousin, and Harvard himself are all deaf. The Wizard of Oz he saw at age seven was performed by a high school for the deaf. Cats had a sign-language interpreter. But there was no interpreter during the performance of Tribes that Harvard’s aunt attended. The only captioned moments came when the deaf characters were using sign language with one another, for the benefit of the hearing audience.

It is a small irony that the growing number of shows about the disabled, or featuring disabled performers, are not themselves fully accessible to audience members who are disabled. It has been more than two decades since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the world’s first civil rights act for the disabled, which mandated that theaters (among other “places of public accommodation”) stop discriminating against the disabled and allow them “full and equal enjoyment.” Yet, to cite one measurable statistic from Theatre Development Fund in New York, no theaters in 31 states offer even one captioned performance at any time during their seasons.

“Theaters are required to make ‘reasonable accommodations,’ but it’s largely left up to the theater as to what that means,” says Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs for TDF, the not-for-profit service organization responsible for many of the pioneering efforts at access. The reasons for the lack of effort, Carling explains, are “lack of interest and lack of money. It’s not on their radar.” With tough times forcing so many theaters to juggle and multitask, “accessibility is the last thing that they think about.”

This may be true even for institutions with recently constructed buildings. “New theaters that consider themselves state-of-the-art may have all the latest technology, but they might not have even thought of all the services they can offer to people who have obstructions in attending the theater,” says Carl Anthony Tramon, director of Special Services for Sound Associates, a company that has been developing devices for the disabled to use in theaters since 1946.

Despite such obstructions, new technology is already available to audience members with barriers to sight and sound. A new approach to inclusivity is making theatergoing easier for autistic audiences. And many more options are in develop- ment. These advances make theatergoing more convenient, and thus more attractive, for audience members who may not otherwise be able to experience it.

Broadway’s Timeline of Accessiblity

Children of A Lesser God offered the first audio-described performance for the blind, in 1980

Children of A Lesser God offered the first audio-described performance for the blind, in 1980

On Broadway the timeline of progress for those facing barriers to communication (rather than physical barriers; mobility access is a huge subject of its own) looks something like this:

 1979: First performance with infrared listening devices for the hard-of-hearing, Peter Pan. The law now mandates these headsets, or something similar, for all theaters that have either more than 50 seats or a sound system.

 1980: First audio-described performance for the blind, Children of a Lesser God.

Also 1980, first performance with a sign-language interpreter, The Elephant Man.

1997: First open-captioned performance for the deaf, Barrymore.

2011: First autism-friendly performance, The Lion King.

“What’s been done on Broadway can easily be replicated,” Carling says. According to Tramon, “There are millions of people with disabilities who would come to the theater if these services were available to them.”

Autism-Friendly Performances

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

For proof, visit one of TDF’s autism- friendly performances, such as a matinee of Elf this past January at the Hirschfeld Theater.

Gary Hagopian had long wanted to take his 19-year-old stepson Jonathan to a musical. “I’ve always been apprehensive because I didn’t know if he would sit right, make noise or even enjoy the performance,” he says. The theatergoers were not the only ones who were nervous.

“It was slightly scary going into it,” remembers Elf actor Josh Lamon. “We wanted to give them a great show, but we did not know what challenges we were going to face.”

As it turns out, within the first moments, a child stormed down the aisle and threw something at the stage. Ironically, what he threw was a fidget, handed out by volunteers to keep everyone calm. An elf onstage caught the fidget as if it were part of the show.

The theater also handed out cards showing the characters, as well as earplugs (some on the autism spectrum are very sensitive to sounds), and they set up a “quiet room” for any autistic theatergoers who got upset; only about 25 wound up using it, in a 1,424-seat house that had been entirely reserved for people on the autism spectrum and their families. As for the musical itself, the sound and lighting were softened. And the houselights were not completely shut off. Ilaina Leavitt, who brought her seven-year-old son to Elf, explains: “Some children on the autism spectrum have a very difficult time being outside the comforts of their own environment; they have sensory challenges with loud noises and lights.” But the theatergoers seemed to enjoy the performance, even the ones (including Jonathan) who were escorted frequently into the lobby. “It was a pleasant learning curve for all of us,” Hagopian says.

Autism-friendly performances are one of the two fastest-growing services for people with communications barriers. “One in 88 children in the United States are diagnosed in the autism spectrum,” says Carling. “This is too big a community to ignore.” Since TDF’s first autism-friendly performance in October 2011, the initiative has attracted a mailing list of some 4,000 new theatergoers. Theaters nationwide have contacted Carling in hopes of setting up similar programs. Her advice: “Give yourself six months to a year to plan. Rely on autism experts to take a look at the production to see if it’s appropriate for people with autism. Designate a day for that performance; don’t sell to the general audience.”

Autism-friendly performances have been proliferating around the country, such as The Lion King at the Hobby Center in Houston in 2012, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at the Old Globe in San Diego, Calif., in 2012, and Annie at Open Door Theater in Massachusetts earlier this year. In May, Chicago Children’sTheater and Redmoon Theater will be co-presenting an autism-friendly perfor- mance of The Elephant & the Whale and Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey will present The Little Mermaid in June.

“These performances give families the opportunity to have the experience of going to a show in an environment that is very accepting,” Leavitt says. “No one is going to judge them.”

Open Captioning

An open captioned performance of Amadeus on Broadway at the Music Box Theater in 2000

An open captioned performance of Amadeus on Broadway at the Music Box Theater in 2000

Another other fast-growing service in theater technology is open captioning. “Thirty-five million people are hearing- impaired in the United States: That’s one in seven Americans—and after the age of 65, it’s one in three Americans,” captioner Mirabai Knight cited as she unloaded what looked like 75 pounds of equipment at the Barrow Street Theater for the sixth and final open-captioned performance of Tribes in January. She set up a tripod and laptop computer; attached the various cables, cords, wires and tape; and finished with the LED display, which looked like the temporary signs put up when there is construction on the highway.

Although Russell Harvard’s aunt did not think Tribes provided this service often enough, most shows that offer open captioning provide it only once during the run—because of the expense and the assumption that it will disturb much of the audience. “I have gotten complaints that the sign is in the way,” Knight said. “But that’s rare. Most people are excited.” Even those who “don’t identify as hard of hearing” can benefit, especially in a show like Tribes, which was in the round and was performed rapidly with thick British accents.

A community has developed around the captioned performances, one that includes Robert and Debbie Wolfe, a married couple who, despite their deafness, are longtime regular theatergoers (they attended captioned performance of Tribes). Before captioning began in 1997, Debbie Wolfe says, “I had difficulty with serious shows and would miss out a lot on what was being said. I avoided them for that reason. Now that the captioned performances are available, I am able to enjoy both musicals and dramas, and do not miss anything.”

No Longer Separate But Equal:

i-Caption, D-Scriptive, Seatback Captioning

At The Lion King on Broadway, theater employee Rusty Thelin holds an i-Caption device in his hand. Behind him are infra-red assistive listening devices.

At The Lion King on Broadway, theater employee Rusty Thelin holds an i-Caption device in his hand.
Behind him are infra-red assistive listening devices.

Advocates for disability rights do not seem to cringe at what could be labeled as the “separate but equal” doctrine underlying accessible performances. But much recent technology aims to integrate audiences. A Kindle-like device called the i-Caption, which is about twice the size of a cell phone, presents the script in real time as it is performed. D-Scriptive provides audio descriptions of the sets, costumes and action for the visually impaired via an earpiece. Once the scripts are prepared, neither service needs live operators; they can be run automatically, timed to the show’s lighting cues. Like the infrared headsets, these services can be used during regular performances.

NYC’s Sound Associates developed i-Caption and D-Scriptive about a decade ago (they now offer both services on one device), and they are available at a half-dozen long-running Broadway shows, as well as at the year-old Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas and the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh.

Seatback captioning

Seatback captioning

An even more integrated system sets up permanent caption devices on the back of every seat. “There has been a lot of interest in the system as a means of discreetly display- ing captions for the hearing impaired,” says Geoff Webb, president of Figaro Systems of New Mexico, which developed the Simultext Seatback Captioning System. In an ironic twist, the device has wound up being installed largely in opera houses—“venues where almost no one can understand what is being said or sung onstage, so everyone uses our system to follow what is happening.” Webb and his colleagues founded the company to bring more hearing-impaired people into the theater—it’s a modern-day echo of the story of Alexander Graham Bell, who was looking for ways to help the deaf (including both his mother and his wife) when he invented the telephone.

Repertorio Espanol, a Spanish-language theater in New York, installed Simultext captioning to attract English-speaking theatergoers, but it is also reaching out to local organizations that serve the hearing impaired to make them aware of the new system. “In the past, when we had the infra-red headphones for the translation system, approximately 10 percent of our audiences used it,” says associate producer Jose Antonio Cruz. “Now that we have both the audio amplification and the Simultext systems, we’re hoping that the number of people visiting our theater that may benefit from the technology increases.”

Technology has been developed in other forms of entertainment as well; for example, Sony Access Glasses are currently available in movie theaters around the country. They are slightly enlarged eyeglasses that pro-vide captions that look as if they are floating between the viewer and the screen. Emerging technology could adapt glasses like these for live performance.

And technology already exists to enable personal cell phones and tablets to present captions; these reportedly are used in some sporting venues. But they are resisted by those who service theaters, because there is no way yet of stopping the user from photographing or videotaping the performance. Cost, then, is not the only barrier to realizing “full and equal enjoyment” of the theater. There are technical issues and copyright concerns. But above all there is the question of attitudes.

It was a change in attitude that allowed theatergoers to start feeling comfortable being seen wearing the assistive listening headsets; the advent of similar-looking devices like iPods helped with that. But audience attitudes have also changed in the direction of greater intolerance toward any distraction in the theatergoing experience—an attitude likely brought on in part by the steep rise in ticket prices—such as cell-phone usage and leaving early at curtain calls.

Overall, most Americans have come to accept the benefits of integration and diversity.

The Lion King: Hearing The Spectacle

Circle of Life Lion King1

Circle of Life from The Lion King. How would YOU describe this?

Lion KingTo learn first hand how accessibility applies to those with communication barriers, ask for the free D-Scriptive device at The Lion King on Broadway, and listen to Tramon’s clear and soothing voice before the show even begins, as he describes first the theater, then each of the characters one by one (Mufasa “moves majestically and with purpose, but when he is angry or frustrated, he hunches over and swings the lion mask down in front of his face”), and explains the intricacies of the puppetry and the set.

As the musical begins with a mellifluous chant from the ensemble, Tramon says softly in the earpiece: “A fog crawls in from the back of the stage as a warm light begins to glow red…. ” His voice gains speed. “Three zebras prance in a circle on the stage…. Four men with a gazelle on their head and one on each arm enter and leap…Pride Rock spirals up.”

By the time of the curtain call (“Three hyenas enter and bow…. Everyone bows together again…. The light in the audience brightens”), the “Circle of Life” is richly illuminated, for the blind and the sighted alike

This article first appeared in the  May 2013 issue of American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group
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Social Media On Stage: Theater Meets Twitter,Facebook,Youtube, Tumbler, Soundcloud…

Mark Lindberg in Nerve Tank's The Attendants at the World Financial Center in New York City, one of the theatrical experiments that put social media on stage.

Mark Lindberg in Nerve Tank’s The Attendants at the World Financial Center in New York City, one of the theatrical experiments that put social media on stage.

Theater, the original social media, meets its digital counterparts in form-breaking new live/virtual experiments:

“As a theatre artist, I love space,” Whit MacLaughlin is saying as we leave the building that houses both a theatre and the offices of New Paradise Laboratories, the company he founded in 1996, and travel to downtown Philadelphia for an unusual tour. The question we set out to explore is: Where do real space and cyberspace come together?
The answer for today: Rittenhouse Square.
But first, a detour—to New York City, London and other spots where theatre artists who share MacLaughlin’s penchant for the newfangled and his formal adventurousness have integrated digital media into the fabric of their performances.

TWEET MEETS STREET THEATER

Jeffrey Cranor had already written and performed in some 50 plays as an ensemble member of the New York Neo-Futurists when he turned to Twitter. All his stage plays had a running time of no longer than three minutes—the company’s weekly theatrical series Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, presents some 30 new plays in 60 minutes—and so Cranor was used to theatre that emphasizes, as he says, brevity and wit. That seemed to characterize Twitter at its best, so he tried an experiment. He tweeted an “assignment”: Write a play on Twitter—no more than 140 characters long, a single Tweet—using two roles and a significant prop. Fifteen of the company’s Twitter followers complied.
@NYNeofuturists has been giving assignments every week since then. Over the past four years, almost 1,000 of the company’s Twitter followers from across the U.S. have written more than 4,900 one-tweet plays.
“Write a Twitter play featuring a deus ex machina,” Cranor requested in one. A typical response:
“Fella (with envelope): I have no stamp. Jesus: Here’s a stamp.”
Write a Twitter play that features a psychic:
“A: I went to a psychic today. B: And? A: I will die alone and leave no trace. B: But I’ll remember you. A: You’re dying first.”
Write a Twitter play that is an adaptation of an existing play:
“JORGEN: Sorry darling, life doesn’t seem to be turning out as we planned. HEDDA: Whatevs. (Hedda walks offstage and shoots herself.)”
“Vladimir: Godot? Estragon: Hold me. Pozzo: What the hell are you two talking about? Godot: . . . (Curtain.).”

Christopher Borg and Kevin R. Free perform one of 54 Twitter plays staged live by the New York Neo-Futurists

Christopher Borg and Kevin R. Free perform one of 54 Twitter plays staged live by the New York Neo-Futurists

Only once in the four years since the Neo-Futurists began their Twitter plays have they produced any of them live onstage. In the summer of 2009, as part of a street festival outside their East 4th Street theatre in the East Village, the company brought to life 54 of the Twitter plays, using actors, signs, props, puppets and sound effects. For a play by Lauren Sharpe (“Write a Twitter play with a big kiss”), an actor painted a target on his face, and an actress put an X on hers; then they kissed, accompanied by a recording of “Kiss” by Prince.
The company has not put on any Twitter plays since then. “Twitter plays are not written for the stage,” Cranor decided. “They’re written for Twitter.”
Still, Cranor is one of many theatre artists who have been using social media in one way or another for their art. Some employ it in the process of creation. Cranor himself has used about five of his own Twitter plays as blueprints to develop new stage plays. A playwriting student named Kate Mickere says that she is working on a full-length “musical extravaganza” for the Playground Festival at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama based on a Twitter play she wrote for the New York Neo-Futurists about Manifest Destiny. Late last year, the Battersea Arts Centre in London launched Scratchr, an online platform designed to plug into existing social networks to increase audience feedback to theatrical works in progress.
Others have used social media as a kind of adjunct to their art. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt famously reinterpreted their musical Next to Normal into a month’s worth of tweets; the Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Romeo and Juliet for Twitter, titling their 4,000-tweet effort “Such Tweet Sorrow.”
The majority of theatre artists involved in social media use it as a marketing tool, of course. A relatively small but growing number of companies, however, have been incorporating Twitter or Facebook or YouTube—or a combination of all of these and more—directly into their live theatrical pieces. These include New Paradise Laboratories in Philadelphia and the New York–based Nerve Tank.
“Everybody uses social media for marketing—badly, I’ll add,” says Melanie Armer of Nerve Tank. “To put it on the stage is a whole different animal.”

I CAN’T GO ON, I’LL GO ONLINE
NerveTankTheAttendants3As Chance Muehleck explains it, Samuel Beckett was the inspiration for The Attendants, a theatre piece he began thinking about soon after he and Armer founded Nerve Tank in 2006. “I was imagining what a sequel to Waiting for Godot would look like. It wouldn’t be a play; we’ve moved beyond that,” says Muehleck, who considers himself a former playwright.
The piece he and director Armer came up with had a tryout in a store window on 42nd Street before it was presented for six hours a day over three days in May 2011 inside the marbled atrium of the World Financial Center across from the site of the World Trade Center. In The Attendants, two performers stand inside a large glass cube, next to a sign that says: “You text, the cube responds.” Passersby text or tweet—their messages are projected onto the cube—and the performers respond physically (never verbally).
NerveTankAttendant4During the performance in the Financial District, seven performers rotated through the cube, wearing business attire and sunglasses (making them look more like characters out of The Matrix than Godot) but no shoes. One member of the makeshift audience tweeted: “Why do people wear suits? They’re not comfortable.” The words appeared on the cube; the performers tugged at their ties. Hundreds of passersby, many of them businesspeople, got into the act, their texts ranging from “the mind is a surreal landscape” to “bedbugs suck.” One tweeted: “I get it! It’s a CUBE-icle! Lol.” But another passerby wasn’t amused: “It’s horrible: They’re making fun of us; that’s our life.”
As a result of The Attendants, Nerve Tank has been invited to participate in TimeWave, which describes itself as “a new international festival fusing art, theatre and technology” that will take place over four days in April in Manchester, England, and in cyberspace. Performances will be presented simultaneously onstage and online, and there will be panel discussions with directors who have conducted rehearsals via Skype and “YouTube stars” who have “serious viral power.”
There is more visibility to the experimenting that is going on in Europe, but there are pockets of startling activity in the U.S. as well. The Nest Haunted House in Chandler, Ariz., integrates Facebook with cutting-edge technology to add an extra layer of spookiness to the experience: A patron enters a room to find framed pictures of his own friends and family, as well as a gravestone with his date of birth…and date of death. All but the date of death are culled from the patron’s Facebook page.

SPACE MEETS CYBERSPACE: FATEBOOK, EXTREMELY PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF PRIVACY

Kevin Greene on-screen, and David Greene, surrounded by audience members in New Paradise Laboratories production of Fatebook

Kevin Greene on-screen, and David Greene, surrounded by audience members in New Paradise Laboratories production of Fatebook

Whit MacLaughlin first became intrigued with what he calls “social media’s effect on our imagination” when he was working on a play with teenagers in Minneapolis in 2006. He was struck by how differently they behaved from a similar group just two years earlier. What had happened in the interim was Facebook.
“I asked how many of them use Facebook: 100 percent. How many text: 100 percent. How many had been texting while I have been talking: 50 percent.” If they were distracted in person, MacLaughlin noticed, they had relationships of awesome complexity and astonishing openness online, in sharp contrast to his own teenaged years.
Out of this realization grew New Paradise’s first experiment merging theatrical space and cyberspace, Fatebook.
Like Nerve Tank’s The Attendants, New Paradise’s Fatebook was initially inspired by a classic. “We started it with the idea of Macbeth,” says MacLaughlin, “but we left that so far behind that it’s embarrassing to bring it up.” It instead became a look at modern life for people in their twenties.
Preparations were extensive and unconventional. MacLaughlin sent out casting notices far and wide, asking anybody interested to first create a YouTube video; some 200 responded.
Eventually, MacLaughlin cast 13 people, who then created alternative identities, and, as those characters, set up real Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube videos, including self-portraits. The characters posted regular updates over a period of several months, drawing thousands of “friends” and “followers” and viewers. A Fatebook website tied it all together, allowing visitors to explore by character or by such themes as “kissing” or “crying” and to see more clearly the interconnectedness of the characters.

Fatebook homepage.

Fatebook homepage.

In September 2009, the characters announced they were going to a party. “One more day of freedom,” tweeted the character Clayton Hughes, who was about to go to law school. “Thank God there’s a party tonight.”
The party, of course, was the performance. It was set up in an empty warehouse, where audience members followed the characters in the flesh and on 10 screens arranged in a kind of interlocking maze, in what MacLaughlin describes as an attempt to recreate in actual space the experience of surfing through cyberspace. Each character had four encounters with other characters (and with individual videos created for the performance), a cycle that was repeated several times. The show climaxed with a car pulling up into the warehouse, out of which a man got out and fired a gun, accidentally killing a bystander (a character). “He was my best friend. R.I.P.,” Clayton Hughes tweeted after the show’s two-week run had finished.
A total of some 1,300 theatregoers attended the play Fatebook, 120 people at a time. And more than 10,000 have visited Fatebook, the site, from 84 countries so far. “The curtain hasn’t come down,” says MacLaughlin of the virtual space.
New Paradise followed up two years later with Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, a three-act piece with only two characters but greater complexity. For Act 1, there is again a website, in which each letter of the long title is clickable, and which again incorporates videos, Facebook and Twitter—also texting and Tumblr and SoundCloud and podcasts. Eventually, the diligent viewer learns that Fess Elliot (played by Annie Enneking) is a former singer-songwriter in what to the astute observer is Minneapolis (though the city is never explicitly identified). Beatrix Luff (Brittany Freece) coaxes her to return to her old career and to join her in Philadelphia.

New Paradise Laboratories artistic director Whit McLaughlin in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia looking at

New Paradise Laboratories artistic director Whit MacLaughlin in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia looking at “Act 2” of Extremely Public Displays of Privacy on his iPod, starring Annie Enneking as the character Fess Eilliot

Thus starts Act 2, which is a virtual experience packaged as a walking tour. During the run, NPL staff handed out iPods at Rittenhouse Square for the “theatregoers” to follow the action on-screen as they walk the same streets Fess is traveling. In the video (which is still available to anybody with a smartphone), the actress playing Fess dunks herself into the fountain in Rittenhouse Square, completely disrobes on Shubert Alley, then goes shopping for new clothes along Walnut Street. She dons a wedding dress, a gag and a sign in the back that says “Kick me,” all at the urging of Beatrix, who provides a voice-over.
“You get the feeling the real world has been fictionalized,” says MacLaughlin. We retrace Act 2 now along Philadelphia’s crowded byways.
There is remarkably little difference between the Philadelphia that’s on the iPod and the one before us in 3-D, except that the iPod segment ends by showing a poster on a bus shelter advertising Act 3 of the piece. That was an actual live event that took place in October 2011 in the basement of

Act II of Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, taking place on an iPod and at Shubert Alley simultaneously

Act II of Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, taking place on an iPod and at Shubert Alley simultaneously

First Baptist Church, consisting of a concert by Fess of her songs (now available as a video online at the Extremely website). The stage performance was pointedly non-virtual, with New Paradise installing a jamming device to block any social media at the site.
One of the panels of Act 1 linked to Frame, which New Paradise also created in 2011 as “an ongoing 24–7 performance space.” Outsiders might consider it a website, but since New Paradise invites viewers to post their own responses, in words or works of art, it is itself a form of social media.
New Paradise’s latest theatre piece, 27, about rock stars who have died at age 27, took place in 2012 at Plays and Players Theater on a regular stage, much to the relief of some local drama critics who have struggled to keep up with the troupe’s virtual peregrinations. But it too had a social media component, albeit less elaborate: One of the characters set up a Facebook page.

New Paradise's production of 27 was a relief to local critics, since it took place in a theater, but even this show had a social media component: A character set up a Facebook page

New Paradise’s production of 27 was a relief to local critics, since it took place in a theater, but even this show had a social media component: A character set up a Facebook page

“It is important to me that more and more people become aware of the possibilities of online storytelling,” MacLaughlin says. “Theatre tends to hold its Luddite credentials high. We fancy ourselves to be the antidote to all that digital stuff.” He believes it is the wrong attitude. “If we’re serious about reaching young and nontraditional potential theatregoers, we’ve got to think of the Internet as a delivery system, not just of marketing but of content.”
By content, of course, he means those old-fangled things called plays.

This article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of American Theatre magazine.

Theater Subscriptions: Does anybody subscribe anymore? What are alternatives?

Robert Falls, the artistic director of  the Goodman Theater in Chicago, recalls the way he was able to get good seats with his subscription to the Lyric Opera.

One day Danny Newman, who handled subscriptions for the Chicago opera company, called him: “You’re in luck! The Shapiros, long time patrons, died in a car crash and we can move you into their seats!”

Newman was the godfather of theater subscriptions, as I point out in my article on theater subscriptions for American Theatre Magazine, and spent three-quarters of a century proselytizing for them.

But now nearly every theater in America seems to feel, at best, ambivalent about theater subscriptions. This is because, like the Shapiros, theater subscribers are dying off, and they are not being replaced with an equal number of newer theatergoers. People are just not as interested in subscribing anymore.

I asked the Twittersphere: When is the last theater subscription you had and why did you stop?

David Loehr@dloehr) Never have had one. I’ve never found a full season I’d want to see, even ridiculously discounted.

Laura Burgos (@lauraebg) Never had one. Can’t afford one. Also: I choose by content & therefore prefer freedom to skip around

Elisa G. Schneider (@Corellianjedi2 I had a subscription to Portland Center Stage. I moved away so I stopped. Sad times.

Diane Wilshere (@petricat666) I currently have five, and one for ballet. One of those is a flex pass style; the others traditional model

Natalie Jankowski (‪@Natty_Lynn): I’ve thought about it and they’re usually too expensive. I prefer to travel around and see things I’m drawn to.

Howard Sherman (@HESherman) I bought my first-ever theater subscription last year, to Signature

Emily Sigal (@Stagemaven) I got a first time membership to the Vineyard Theatre 2 years ago because of the NHT gang’s lab

Vineyard (@vineyardtheatre) And we’ve been glad to have you ever since. We can’t do without our members

Daniel Bourque (@Danfrmbourque): Subscribe to the Met for years; almost ONLY way to get any kind of flexibility or lower pricing.

Charlene V. Smith@charlenevsmith): I had one to the Brooklyn Academy of Music because they brought in such great stuff from England. I traveled from DC for it. I stopped when I became a full time actor because I couldn’t afford trip to NY every other month

Ellen Burns (@StageElf) I’m a member of three, subscriber to three, flex for one, due to ease of getting/exchanging tickets. I prefer membership

Most of these responses are from theater-makers as well as theatergoers. It’s bracing how many don’t have subscriptions at all.

That is why many theaters are exploring new ways of engaging their audiences, alternatives or supplements to subscriptions. In the magazine article,  I write about:

ArtsEmerson’s memberships. For $60, theatergoers get one free ticket to this Boston-based theater company that is part of Emerson College, and then ability to buy tickets to all the theater’s other shows before they go on sale to the general public. Executive director Rob Orchard says: “I doubt there is any artistic director or managing director who would start a theater today with subscriptions as their primary model.”

ACT of Seattle’s flex pass; For 25 dollars a month, theatergoers can see as many shows as they want.

Mixed Blood Theater’s Radical Hospitality: The Minneapolis theater gives many of their tickets away for free

There are theaters who are doing quite nicely, thank you, with theater subscriptions, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Arena Stage in Washington D.C.