With ticket prices for Toronto theatre skyrocketing, some are worried it’s becoming an art form for the 1 percent

This article is part of a series that appeared in the May 9, 2019 print edition on the cost of.


This article is part of a series that appeared in the May 9, 2019 print edition on the cost of arts and culture events in Toronto. Read the others on museums and live music here and here.

Its The Producers fault. Or, rather, the producers of The Producers. You can blame Mel Brookss hit 2001 musical for the current high prices for big-ticket shows both on Broadway and even here in Toronto.

Before that show, the top ticket price on Broadway was $100, says John Karastamatis, director of sales and marketing at Mirvish Productions. In order to fight the secondary resale market, the producers of that show put a section of the theatre at [$480], and people bought them.”

These days, while $150 is standard for a decent orchestra or mezzanine seat at a play or musical, on Broadway or at one of the Mirvish houses, premium seats are often double or triple that, depending on the show.

Its your basic supply and demand equation. A theatre has only so many seats and weekly performances, and if theres demand for a show like The Book Of Mormon, for instance, or, more recently, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen why not jack up the price even more?

Some producers think thats fair play its the marketplace, and theres nothing wrong with participating in the marketplace, explains Karastamatis, mentioning the recent run of The Lehman Trilogy off-Broadway, where tickets were going for $1000 and more. I understand that, but if you look at the long-term health of the industry, you cant afford to disenfranchise people. You have to be able to make everyone feel welcome.

When I sent out a tweet asking my theatregoing followers if theyd paid over $200 for a show, many scoffed and said, flat out, No way.

But a few explained why they had paid so much.

Pam Ingold admitted shed paid over $200 for a ticket to see The Last Ship, because shes a long-time Sting fan, and hes always been worth every penny whether solo, with the Police or onstage.

Another theatregoer, Bob Dunkin, who works in the industry as a technician, said he happily paid more than $200 to see Come From Away. Hed seen the pre-Broadway run in previews and enjoyed it so much he wanted to see it again, in a centre orchestra seat, with a musician friend.

I dont know if I would have spent that much on an unknown show, he added.

Owais Lightwala, the managing director of the indie theatre company Why Not Theatre, understands. He says many people think nothing of dropping $200 on a Taylor Swift concert.

Their reasoning is that they know exactly what theyre getting, he explains. And commercial musicals by and large conform to a similar set of expectations. Your experience will be within a pretty narrow range. You might like one a little more or less, but you know what to expect. Youre not going to be surprised.

The kind of theatre Why Not who have been behind some of the theatre scenes more intriguing works, like A Brimful Of Asha, Prince Hamlet, Butcher and the annual RISER Project, which starts up again this week is less predictable.

But were convinced that what we do is amazing and could be even better than Taylor Swift.

Two years ago, Lightwala and Why Nots Ravi Jain and Kelly Read came up with a novel pricing model for their bilingual English and American Sign Language production of Prince Hamlet. The pay-what-you-can-afford model presented audiences with four prices: $5, $25, $50 and $75, with no limits on the number of tickets sold at each level, or where patrons sat in the theatre.

We felt that $5 was a good price for a person who thought, I dont know what this is, I dont know if I trust it, but Im willing to take a risk, says Lightwala.

What the company didnt realize until after the run had started was that many in the deaf community are underprivileged financially.

Many people [from that community] told us that the reason why they could see the show was that it was $5. And it wasnt with a feeling of, Heres your special discounted ticket as a charity. It was perceived as a valid price to pay.

Most people paid $5 or $25, but 10 percent paid $50, and some paid the $75.

The model allowed people to think about what they could afford and the value of what they were getting. Some could go, Ive been to this companys work before, or I know something about this or Im a really big fan and I want to support this.

Almost all local theatre provides some sort of rush ticket policy, especially for students, or early discounting of tickets.

A company might offer $30 rush tickets if you buy your tickets between 11:59 am and 12:03 pm, and only on a cloudy day, and you have to be hopping on one foot with one eye closed, laughs Lightwala.

There are all these constraints, which suggest the theatre doesnt actually want you to get these tickets. If you have 20 tickets set aside for youths in an 800-seat theatre, you dont actually want youths there. You want mostly the people who can afford to come to your thing, and you want the youths so you can check off the grant criteria.

Lightwala also doesnt understand why tickets for those under 30 are automatically cheaper.

I know many people under 30 who make tons of money and dont have kids or other responsibilities, he says. They might be willing and able to pay more. Why do we automatically assume that thats where the discount should happen?

He says its ironic that many theatre artists cant afford to go see work in their own industry.

We go to openings, or try to get arts worker tickets, or go with a friend who can get a comp.

No announcements have been made yet about single tickets for the record-breaking musical Hamilton, which, although a rental, is part of Mirvishs season, and arrives here in May 2020. But if tickets from similarly sized North American cities are any indication, prices could climb as high as $500.

And these days, even not-for-profit theatre companies like Canadian Stage and Soulpepper can charge up to $100 and beyond.

If there arent a significant number of theatre seats available for affordable prices lets say, no more than $30 it becomes an art form for the 1 per cent and true enthusiasts, says Holger Syme, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto. And thats a problem especially in a culture where there is fairly substantial public funding for theatre.

Lightwala says, though, that the gradual rise of ticket prices reflects the lack of arts funding.

We have a systemic, massive, underfunded art system, he says. Whats happened over the years is public funding has been filled by private philanthropy and by box office. Those are the only levers you have. That puts commercial pressure on places like Shaw and Stratford to do shows they think will be popular, like musicals.

If were going to discuss the rise in theatre ticket prices, says Lightwala, we have to look at the rising costs of living in the city.

We havent set up an economic structure that allows everyone to prosper, he says. Weve set it up to be competitive so that some people will win big and others will be struggling. Yesterday, near the Why Not office in Parkdale, I couldnt find a barbershop to cut my hair for less than $35. Theres prosperity, but who has it, and where is it being distributed? Thats part of a much larger conversation.

@glennsumi

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