Inflation, There’s the Rub

In 1986 Barbara Gaines staged Shakespeare Repertory’s first production–a simple but thrilling Henry V outdoors on the patio at the Red Lion Pub. Admission was by donation. “Some people paid a dollar,” Gaines recalls, “and some people chipped in 20.”

This fall her company, now called Chicago Shakespeare Theater, finally moves into a home of its own. After a remarkable string of successes–most during a 12-year residency at the Ruth Page Theater–the troupe’s setting up shop in a $31 million, 525-seat theater on Navy Pier. And when it opens Antony and Cleopatra on October 22, tickets won’t come cheap: $42 for the best seats, a new high that this season will match Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Northlight for prime weekend evening performances.

The new top ticket price puts these not-for-profits in the same league as commercial producers. While downtown touring productions of Broadway shows may charge $70 for their best seats, off-Loop commercial ventures–like Forever Plaid at the Royal George or The Irish…and How They Got That Way at the Mercury–have been typically asking less than $40.

Jam Productions’ Steve Traxler, a coproducer of The Irish…and How They Got That Way, believes most off-Loop theatergoers balk at $40 tickets. “We could have charged a lot more for this show,” he says, “but we wanted to hold the price down to emphasize that this is a family show and to attract that audience.”

But these concerns apparently aren’t shared by Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman, Northlight, and Steppenwolf. “We have priced things according to what the expenses are,” says Steppenwolf marketing director Tim Evans.

It’s tempting to attribute these higher expenses to elaborate new facilities, which have brought larger staffs and higher overhead–and in the case of Northlight, a nagging debt, now at $1 million, incurred in its build out at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

“Have you looked at the staff listings for these not-for-profit companies lately?” asks Alan Schuster, who owns the Royal George Theatre Center, where the top ticket price for Love, Janis of $39.50 will soon rise to $45. As a commercial producer, Schuster says, he can save money by farming out some jobs, such as public relations and marketing, that the not-for-profits typically handle in-house. “It takes a lot of people to run these theaters.”

Five years ago Chicago Shakespeare had a full-time staff of 6; today it’s 22. But larger staff isn’t the reason ticket prices are going up, according to executive director Criss Henderson. Administrative payroll accounts for only 17 percent of the company’s annual operating budget. “In our shows, we have more than 20 actors onstage, typically with 15 or 16 Equity contracts,” says Henderson, now in his tenth season with the company. “The reason we charge what we do is all onstage.”

Higher ticket prices may be justified, but are these companies driving away younger audiences?

Victory Gardens managing director Marcelle McVay is concerned. “I would ideally like to be asking $15 to $20 for my most expensive tickets instead of the $30 I have to charge,” says McVay, who remembers that Victory Gardens charged $5 per ticket when it opened in 1974. Still, the theater offers considerably cheaper tickets than most of the other top not-for-profits, and in recent years it’s even managed to mount shows with major Broadway and Hollywood stars, including Julie Harris, Gary Cole, and William Petersen. This season’s opener, Bluff, stars film and TV actors Jon Cryer and Sarah Trigger.

League of Chicago Theatres executive director Marj Halperin says it’s OK to raise prices if economics demand it. “Not every theater ticket that is sold has to be sold in the name of audience development.” For the cash-strapped, she points out, there’s always Hot Tix, the booths run by the league to offer same-day tickets at half price. While Hot Tix patrons can’t always count on tickets being available for particular shows or performances, all league members are required to supply the discount service with a minimum of 24 tickets per production.

Joanne Scheff, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, compares this trend–high base prices with frequent discounts–to the tactics of airlines looking to fill as many seats as possible: “These days there are higher highs and lower lows in the pricing structures.”

And just like the airlines, theater companies reward their frequent patrons. Rising prices for single tickets have been accompanied by better subscription deals. At Northlight, managing director Richard Friedman readily admits he upped this season’s single ticket price to a new high to encourage people to buy subscriptions. “We are giving people two free shows on the subscriptions, so it’s made it very obvious the subscription is a much better deal,” he says. Until new artistic director B.J. Jones assumed the reins at Northlight last season, subscriptions had been plummeting. But with a more accessible lineup of off-Broadway and Broadway hits and the attractive subscription deals, Northlight is rapidly winning back lost subscribers. “We’re already up to 8,500 this year from 5,400 last year,” says Friedman. “And we aren’t finished yet.”

Steppenwolf is offering its main-stage subscribers a 20 percent discount on each ticket, and audiences are responding. “We were up to a new high of 23,000 this season from 21,000 last year,” says Tim Evans, who concedes that at 49, the median age of a Steppenwolf subscriber isn’t young. He says the company is trying to appeal to a broader range of patrons by offering lower-priced shows in its studio and garage series, which have also spotlighted younger companies, such as Lookingglass and Roadworks. “We want to attract different kinds of audiences,” says Evans.

With the publicity surrounding its move to Navy Pier, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has seen a dramatic increase in subscriptions to its three-play season: 15,300 subscribers so far, more than double last year’s 7,000, with a median age of 50. For casual theatergoers or those without the money to pop for subscriptions, Henderson says, tickets to preview performances will be a relatively affordable $23.

Henderson doesn’t think his company is pricing itself out of the market. If the productions are good, he says, audiences will buy tickets, no matter the price. “We’ve just got to be sure we continue to do great work.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Criss Henderson.