Perils of Free?
In Friday's You've Cott Mail, way down at the bottom, Thomas Cott includes a quick quote from Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, given as part of a larger article in Crane's New York about how major New York arts organizations are engaging the younger generation. Eustis' quote hits pretty close to home in terms of innovative audience development, not because what he's talking about is revolutionary, but because he speaks about the shortcomings of one of the most-well-known free-ticketed events in the country, Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park. Here's the quote, with some extra context pulled from the article:
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, said the arts need to be more accessible for everyone. Even the nonprofit theater's free Shakespeare in the Park creates barriers.
“By giving Shakespeare away for free, it has become inaccessible for many,” Mr. Eustis said. “Tell someone they have to wait six to 36 hours in line for a ticket and it erases 90% of population that would have considered going.”
In some ways, this is a quote that one can react strongly to without really being empathic about the Public's situation--after all, we're not all just sitting there with drastically popular, massively funded free programming where the demand highly exceeds the supply. But, here at Theatre Bay Area, we're in the enviable or unenviable position of having a similar issue. We've been grappling with this same (relative) issue in the context of our Free Night of Theater program, in which we annually distribute about 5,000 to 6,000 free theatre tickets, and also annually disappoint between 20,000 and 30,000 unlucky people who don't get tickets, don't get the tickets they want, or get overly frustrated by the (admittedly arduous, or at least not hoop-free) process of getting the tickets.
We've tried various ways to "share the wealth" of the program--we do targeted giveaways to businesses whose employees seem likely candidates to become repeat arts consumers while also setting up various roadblocks to dissuade repeat Free Nighters from being able to easily access the tickets. But it's hard, and so when I saw Eustis' quote it got me thinking.
How can we, as artists, arts administrators and (yes) businesspeople balance success with access? How can we make sure, in the case of Free Night, that we're continuing to make the arts available to new people while also ensuring, for the companies' sakes, that we're getting those tickets to audiences that are likely to return (and pay)? What does it say when the leader of one of the biggest free theatrical events in the world essentially says that the very "freeness" of the event "erases 90% of the population that would have considered going?"
In the case of the Public, they're addressing this inequity by creating a "mobile Shakespeare" unit, the goal of which is to take the art to some subset of those people who can't or won't wait in line. And in our case, we're looking at turning Free Night upside down over the course of the next year and seeing if there's a way to keep the success of the program while also improving some of the inherent problems we've tried and failed to solve in the last six years. We'll see how it goes...but we're open to suggestions.