Right now in DC we find ourselves in the middle of the Capital Fringe Festival. I’m a proud Fringe veteran myself; I did a reading of my play ABSTRACT NUDE in the first festival, then produced it there the following year. I had a sold-out run, got lots of publicity, and (most importantly) made theater I was really proud of that lots of people seemed to enjoy. (I met my wife during the run of that show, too.) It was a terrific experience, and it was important in my development as an artist.
I love the DC Fringe. I love that it gives young theater practitioners a chance to make a splash. I love that it gives veteran theater practitioners an opportunity to experiment. I love that it serves as a laboratory in which one can learn all the ins-and-outs of producing theater. I love the stripped-down aesthetic of a lot of the work that gets produced. I love how goofy and personal some of the shows seem to be (even though I typically don’t choose to see those shows). I love that it stands as a giant contrast to the thriving theatrical mechanism that runs in the city throughout the rest of the year.
In one way, however, it’s starting to look more and more *like* the rest of the theater being made in the city: it’s getting expensive. Single tickets this year cost a whopping $17; you can get passes that reduce the price as low as $12, but only if you see 10 shows in 18 days. (For $300 they’ll let you see as much as you want, which technically makes it possible to reduce the price even further… but come on, please.) A more accessible four-ticket or six-ticket package (which is still a lot of theater to cram into two-and-a-half weeks) still sets you back $15 a pop.
But the cost doesn’t stop there, because in order to get into a Fringe show, you have to be wearing a Fringe button, which they’re happy to sell you for a mere $7. That makes the single ticket price effectively $24, to which I can only say: $24! Are you kidding me?
Actually, it’s worse than that: if you buy the ticket online, there’s a service charge of $3.75. A single ticket is actually $27.75. For a Fringe show. That is just wrong. Of course, I bought one anyway, out of friendship and in support of the artist whose show I saw. But I felt put-upon in doing so — not by my friend, of course, but by Fringe.
Look: I don’t want to dig into the theater practitioner economics. I don’t want to talk about how much it costs to produce a show at Fringe. I know, from experience, what it costs, and I also know nobody’s getting rich. I sincerely hope nobody’s doing it to make money. In fact, I hope most people are doing it as an investment, one that will pay off in professional development. I hope people are expecting to lose money and gain knowledge. That’s how I did it, and that’s how I think it should be done.
What I do want to talk about is what it must feel like for an audience member to pay $27.75 to see a Fringe show, which carries with it the freight of experimentation, roughness, and the potential for failure. Seeing a Fringe show is a lark: something one does with lightness of heart and low expectations. You might be in for something wonderful, and you might pass a boring hour in the company of four other bored patrons in a mostly-empty space. I’m sorry to say, but that’s just not a $27.75 experience. That’s a $10 or $12 experience at most. Or $15 and screw the button. No, $12 and screw the button.
Yes, that means less money for the artists doing the producing. There’s no way around that, barring some major shift in the way our tax dollars support the arts or a stunning investment from a local corporation, neither of which seem likely. I wish that weren’t the case, believe me — and please know that I’m not saying this as someone who makes a ton of money in theater, because (and I hope this isn’t a surprise to anyone) nobody makes a ton of money in theater. There’s simply no way I could ever be paid for the many long hours I work as a playwright. I do it, in fact, as a community service, and while I’d like to make more money, I don’t expect my financial picture to change drastically any time soon.
There was a brief moment when I was asked to be part of the Fringe Advisory Board. I said yes, but nothing ever came of it: no one ever consulted me on anything. I can’t say that if I was actually part of that august body, ticket prices would have remained where they were when I started — and where they were, honestly, I cannot recall — but I can tell you that’s the first thing I would have brought up… because I love Fringe, and I want it to do well and mean something and (above all else) be accessible to lots of people. Is that going to happen at $27.75 for a single ticket? I really don’t know, but I highly doubt it.