If I had to recommend the work of any director in the world, it would be the innovative productions of Peter Brook. It’s a cause of excitement and curiosity that the great man is back in town from his base in Paris with a new play, for we can never anticipate what he will do next.
Tierno Bokar firstly astonishes us with its immense, staggering simplicity. If we can meet the extraordinary production halfway, even we urban neurotics of New York will glimpse the possibilities of the serene in the midst of global chaos.
Mr. Brook and his international troupe are telling us the story of a humble and amazing African, the Muslim Tierno Bokar, and what he taught the world. What could be timelier than a play about religious fanaticism and unending war, a modern parable about colonial rule and the nature of sublime tolerance? But rather than write about the achievement of the production, I want to talk about something else that Mr. Brook is doing that’s of profound importance to us.
Wishing to make theater accessible to all, he’s the first internationally known director to lead the way by insisting that ticket prices must come down. Mr. Brook is saying, in urgent effect, if so many people can no longer afford to go to the theater, what’s the point of theater?
It’s the most pressing question of all. The cost of tickets is killing the audience. They’re also killing the future. Kids can’t afford to go. Broadway will always be opportunistic Broadway. The bottom-line choices, the safe, star-driven revivals, are by now normal. We’ve come to expect no better. But in our proudly multi-ethnic city, the loyal audiences at our big nonprofit institutions remain noticeably white, middle-class and aging.
In terms of both ticket prices and productions, it’s actually getting harder and harder to tell the difference between nonprofit and commercial theater. Pandering choices-the phony art of survival-now apply to both. Exceptions are rare and still fighting the good fight. But the unpalatable truth is that an entire movie-going generation of New Yorkers has grown up believing that theater is out of reach, unaffordable, elitist and half-dead.
Mr. Brook has broken with his friends at the Brooklyn Academy of Music-his longtime home here-precisely because its ticket prices remain too high. The higher the prices, the more limited the audience. Mr. Brook has therefore staged Tierno Bokar on the Columbia campus in a converted gymnasium at Barnard. He’s played in some unusual places in his time-the Sahara Desert, an abandoned gas works in Denmark, the villages of India, the hills of Persepolis-but this is his first gym.
The irony is that he’s interested in almost anything in life except for weightlifting and sports. He has therefore colonized the LeFrak Gymnasium on 117 Street and Broadway and turned it into an intimate 494-seat theater. But this is the thing. Look at his ticket prices:
All Columbia students are entitled to a seat anywhere in the house for $10. Any other student pays $15. For faculty members and producing partners (among them, Barnard College and the Harlem Arts Alliance), the ticket cost is $25. The top price at Tierno Bokar for the general public is $40.
On the other hand, the top ticket price at B.A.M. is an average $70 (followed by $60, $45 and $25). Tickets for students aren’t guaranteed. “Student rush tickets” at $10 are subject to availability one hour before the performance.
Mr. Brook has clearly made the young his priority. Then again, all seats for the current Dessa Rose production at the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater are $75 (or $35 dollars more than Mr. Brook’s top ticket price). Student discount tickets are $20.
Let’s raise the ante. The top ticket price at the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is a staggering $91.25. (The rear mezzanine, which is believed to be two blocks away, is $36.25). A student can get a 50 percent discount 30 minutes before the show, but again, subject to availability.
The Roundabout’s prices are almost on a par with commercial Broadway. Take the star-driven Julius Caesar with Denzel Washington. If you’re mad enough to want to see this terrible production, the top ticket is $101.25. The lowest is $51.25. There are no student discounts.
Good old Denzel. He’s obviously used all his big-shot Hollywood clout to make certain his grassroots fans can afford a ticket to see his boring Brutus. Or put it this way: Instead of taking your lovely wife to a Broadway show, why not go to Paris for the weekend instead?
Audience subscriptions and membership programs at the nonprofits reduce the prices somewhat (just $15 at the Roundabout). But the cost still remains prohibitively high. The encouragement to the young is grudging or even nonexistent.
Our nervy nonprofit leaders argue that they must charge the high prices in order to produce a minority art. But was ever “art” flown under such false colors? Assuming their argument is sincere, however, what’s their real rationale-the survival of the art or the institution?
The real artist gambles every time. He will gamble with his very life. Only then can theater become a truly alive meeting of open hearts and minds. But the institution risks as little as possible. It will fill the theater with crap if necessary. It is only in the survival game.
That is why the now 80-year-old Peter Brook has bypassed the established New York institutions to gamble with something adventurously new on the Columbia campus. Gregory Mosher-the former director of Lincoln Center Theater-is currently director of the university’s Arts Initiative, whose purpose is to encourage the arts on campus. He’s begun with a bang. The Arts Initiative is the principal producer of Tierno Bokar.
The unexpected partnership of Mr. Brook and Mr. Mosher appears providential. Mr. Mosher is the only U.S. director to have reduced ticket prices in the past. During his tenure at Lincoln Center from 1985-92, he began an exhilaratingly successful $10 ticket price for members who paid $25 annually, or nothing if they couldn’t afford it.
The outcome was that he attracted a new audience into the theater who didn’t normally go. The low ticket price even triggered the sale of the more expensive seats. The revenue didn’t go down, but up. The annual budget of $600,000 grew to a staggering $33 million in just two years. And the re-energized repertory of plays had the leeway to take more risks.
You need luck in life, and the theater needs it a lot. No doubt Mr. Mosher had his share of good fortune during his tenure at Lincoln Center. But reasonable ticket prices help. Today, at the Royal National Theatre in London, its artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, has introduced a new £10 ticket policy. Again, revenue has increased, a new young audience has been found. The place is alive.
Nobody’s saying it’s easy. But who else is addressing the urgent issue of lowering ticket prices before it’s too late? Who will make our theaters available to all?
Tierno Bokar at Columbia is a bold experiment in more ways than one. It is theater of the highest order at the lowest price.
Mr. Brook is saying to us: All are welcome.
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