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Support the Arts?

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-02-24


For all the theatre-going enthusiasts in Fort Wayne, I'd like to offer up the following hypothetical question for their consideration: how much would you pay to see Steel Magnolias performed by an Indiana community theatre? Before answering, please know that this isn't a trick question; I'm not trying to set everybody up with a faux joke just so I can detonate a mean little punchline here ("Zero," being the best punchline, obviously, though there's probably a good one about how much you'd pay "not" to see it.) And I'm not trying to condescend, and I'm not trying to humiliate, either, no, I'm genuinely curious what people would be willing to fork over to see that play, for people here seem to see it quite a lot.

Steel Magnolias is one of those tried-and-true community theatre warhorses that never seems to get out of town; it's like some communicable disease that gets passed from carrier to carrier. And once it has spread to all the other community theatres in town, over a period of years, guess what? It's time for the original "host" theatre to do its second go-round of the play. And then on and on and on. I've lost count of how many times the play has been done here, but I think it has to be around 8000 or so since the play debuted in 1987. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some charismatic, psychotic middle-school drama teacher isn't working on his own Steel Magnolias Jr! script for a future junior high school production.

But anyway, back to the question at hand here: how much would you pay? The reason I'm so interested in finding the answer to this is that I had a chance to see a recent production of Steel Magnolias in Carmel, at the brand-spanking new Booth Tarkington Theatre, and though I didn't attend, I did happen to see the ticket price for the show, and Holy Moly: I still can't get my jaw off the floor. I recognize that I haven't seen a play in quite a while, and I know that not-for-profit theatres are constantly fighting to stay above water, but still, there's no way I expected it to be so ridiculous. (Just to be clear here, I didn't set out to intentionally see Steel Magnolias — a friend I hadn't seen in a while suggested we catch a show at the new Tarkington, and neither of us knew what was playing there. When we arrived, and when we saw what was being offered, we both made identical "no way in Hell" faces and bolted.)

So yeah: Steel Magnolias at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre? That costs 41.50 a ticket. Yep. $41.50 Or, as my friend said, "41 flipping 50?" To put that in perspective… well, you know what? There is no perspective. 41.50 is insane. Now, to their credit, the theater did offer "student" tickets at the reduced rate of, er… 31.50 a ticket. So a "date night" at the Civic Theatre, for two adults, to see a production presented by a non-professional, non-equity community theater, and to see a play that has been done to death by virtually every theater in the universe for the past 25 years, well, that "night out" would set you back just a little south of one solid "C" note. And that's not counting the liquor you'd need to get through the evening.

Initially, after seeing the price, I tried to be a tiny bit charitable in my mind, thinking, Well, now, you know: it is Carmel, where all the rich people are, and it's a brand new building, too, and the Civic Theatre there is one of the largest in the country, and they've got a huge pool of talent and so maybe. . . But I stopped myself. Ultimately I decided it didn't matter whether the play was in Paris or Fort Wayne or on Neptune; there's no way any reasonable person should be expected to pay that much for non-professional work. Anywhere.

I've got nothing against community theatre, and indeed, I've planted myself onstage for a number of local companies, but I find it incredible that ticket prices, across the board, have gotten so ridiculously excessive. I know times are tough and I recognize that everybody's fighting for survival in the arts but you know what? When I've just paid $20 (much less $41.50) for an absolutely crap production, I don't care about that; I just feel cheated. And I certainly don't feel compelled to ever return. Now, if the ticket had cost $10, maybe I would have been a bit more forgiving. Maybe I'd be tempted to give the troupe a second chance. But there's nothing more depressing than sitting in a half-empty auditorium, watching a production wilt and die by the minute, and knowing that you paid about three times more than what you should have.

And look, I know that there are some community theatre productions that are absolutely first-rate; there are some I've seen in Fort Wayne that could match up with any company, professional or not, in the country. But let's be very clear, that number is pretty low. It has to be; by its very nature, it has to be. If I were to make a rough estimate of the quality of shows here, I'd say that 1 out of 5 shows here is good, and maybe 1 out of 10 is very good. Every 3rd season or so, there is a production that really soars and would probably succeed on a national scale. But really, that's about it. And I don't think I'm being miserly here, for, as every decent director will tell you, getting the perfect cast for a perfect show is an absolute crap shoot. It has to be the right people in the right roles at the right time, and that's almost impossible to accomplish in a non-professional milieu.

I'm certain that many not-for-profit administrators and directors could break it down for me with charts and graphs and economic studies and subsciption rates and explain that the tickets absolutely, positively, have to cost at least $20 here, and often more, just to keep afloat, that it's simply the inescapable fact about the entertainment economy in the new century. And that all may be true, but you know, another inescapable fact is that people in Indiana get sort of bent out of shape if they feel they're not getting their money's worth. Even when they're doing something noble, like supporting the arts, they're keeping track, and if your theatre troupe keeps throwing out dog after dog, eventually, those people are going to fed up and leave.

So, to answer the question posed at the start (and it's a moot point, for I wouldn't see Steel Magnolias with a gun to my head): $10 bucks. That's it. Charge me $10 bucks and I'll sit through everything you got. Nunsense. Joseph. Driving Miss Daisy. Neil Simon. Forever Plaid. Just keep the tickets reasonable, that's all I ask, and I'll remain forever: Your loyal supporter of the arts.

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