It’s Magic: Prices Rise at Steppenwolf Studio

Price inflation continues apace on the off-Loop theater scene. In 1994 Angels in America set a new high of $50 a ticket for an off-Loop production, and Wisdom Bridge Theatre, in residence at the Ivanhoe Theater, upped its top ticket from $25 to $35. Now comes the Steppenwolf significantly boosting the scale for its studio theater. Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, a one-man magic show directed by David Mamet, begins a four-week run (with a possible extension) in the studio on January 14 with a top ticket costing $40 on Friday and Saturday nights. Weekday performances top out at a slightly lower $37.50. Those prices are actually higher than the $32 top for Steppenwolf’s current main-stage production of Athol Fugard’s Playland. Theatergoers won’t be getting much spectacle for their buck: just one critically acclaimed magician onstage with his “assistants”–a deck of cards. No one associated with the show will say much about how it works, but magician Ricky Jay apparently requires additional offstage human assistance to pull off some of his feats of legerdemain.

Steppenwolf artistic director Randall Arney anticipates that studio prices will go back down to their previous level for future productions. Last season, the first for Steppenwolf’s studio, the highest priced tickets for Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Slavs! were $19.50, while Lookingglass’s The Master and Margarita, presented in association with Steppenwolf, topped out at a mere $14. The more than 100 percent jump for Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants may have something to do with the absence of philanthropic funding. Last year the Sara Lee Foundation kicked in $100,000 toward the studio’s debut season. Yet another factor may be the cost of the talent involved. Ricky Jay received a ringing endorsement from critics in New York, where the show debuted last season, and his magic apparently doesn’t come cheap. Steppenwolf managing director Stephen Eich would not discuss the costs of presenting Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants at Steppenwolf, but a local theater source familiar with Ricky Jay’s fees says the magician could be commanding $18,000 to $22,500 per week for his services.

Still Steppenwolf could wind up earning a nice profit if Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants proves as popular here as it was in New York. The show was developed at the not-for-profit, off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre, where it also premiered. According to Second Stage associate producer Carol Fishman, the show was expected to close after only a few weeks, but ended up having a sold-out 16-week run. At Second Stage the show played in a 108-seat house, where the top ticket was initially $40, but rose to $45 after the show became a hit and was extended. Steppenwolf’s studio is being downsized from 275 to 215 seats to create a steeper rake for seating and accommodate the special requirements of Ricky Jay’s magic. So if Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants sells out, Steppenwolf could gross close to double what was taken in each week at Second Stage.

Fallen Angels?

Just before Christmas the producers of Angels in America announced they were cutting prices by 50 percent for some rear main floor and balcony seats that otherwise might go unsold at January performances. Coproducer Robert Perkins says the discounting will allow a “broader range of theatergoers” to see the production. True, but it also suggests that, four months into the show’s run, demand for tickets may have slowed, making such steep discounts necessary to fill the house. During the first months of its run, the play grossed between $120,000 and $130,000 a week, but the weekly take began to fall off during December. Perkins says the discounting will not drop the weekly gross below the approximately $100,000 needed to cover the show’s operating expenses and royalty payments.

Discounting is a ploy successfully introduced on Broadway late last year by producer Cameron Mackintosh, who wanted to boost sluggish midwinter sales for his long-running musicals Miss Saigon and Les Miserables.Other Broadway producers quickly followed suit, offering discounts of as much as 50 percent for performances to shows in January and February. Perkins insists the availability of Angels in America discounts will not extend beyond January 10, the current deadline for purchasing discount tickets. The play is scheduled to leave town March 12 but may close two weeks early to accommodate a new booking in Boston.

It Shoulda Been a Contender

Director Douglas Hartzell and producer Melanie Bishop tried all manner of marketing tactics to build an audience for their stage version of On the Waterfront, which opened at the American Blues Theatre in late November. After the show received highly positive reviews in both the Trib and Sun-Times, Bishop increased the show’s advertising buy to include large display ads with prominent quotes from the reviews. They also tried passing out discount coupons at Northwestern and Union stations. “Every night we’d get four or more coupons at the box office that we had passed out that morning,” says Hartzell. But he says the best results came from bookmarks offering a $2 discount that were slipped into books sold at north-side bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, Crown, and Aspidistra.

Despite all these efforts, the show was playing to only about 20 people a night–until last week. On Wednesday, December 28, and Thursday, December 29, the play drew as many as 130 people, nearly filling the 140-seat theater. However, the crowds didn’t last through the holiday weekend. “If I were going to the theater on New Year’s Eve,” Hartzell says, “I’d go see Joseph before I saw something heavy.”

Last week’s significant boost in box-office action came too late to prevent American Blues from taking a financial hit on the production, which has a 23-person cast and weekly operating costs of about $5,000. Hartzell estimates the theater’s total loss will be around $10,000. Although the post-Christmas crowds did start talk of an extension, at a meeting Monday night the theater’s board decided to close the play as originally scheduled on January 8.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.