Monday Muse: Classism in Theater

Heyo, and welcome to the Monday Muse.

As you might have noticed, I am not A, who is scheduled to do today’s post. She is in tech rehearsals today and won’t be able to make it to Cactuslandia, so I agreed to step in and take care of it.

Of course, now she gets to deal with the fact that I’m going to steal today’s topic from a conversation we had yesterday as we were driving to the theater to see Civil War. So… here we go.

A and I love theater. Probably for different reasons and definitely at different levels, but both of us love it. So we both enjoy taking the opportunity to see something when the time comes. Now, admittedly, I’m not nearly as much into musicals as A is, so I don’t see as many, but the point still stands that we enjoy an evening of live theater.

But neither of us are particularly wealthy, so it can be economically unfeasible to see as much as we would like. Especially since the ticket prices are often astronomical. Seriously… you think a movie ticket is bad? I could see 5-6 movies for the price of a cheap show. Now, I’m not saying that theater isn’t worth the money — of course it is — but the prices being what they are has the unfortunate side effect of homogenizing the theater-going audience. In effect, theater is segregated, but not on racial lines; rather, class is the dividing factor. The poor simply cannot go.

It’s more than just ticket costs, as well. Even the debate about proper attire has economic undertones. Do we dress up or come as we are? In a movie theater, we can wear whatever; there is no need to prove that we belong by looking the part. But the debate over proper attire in live theater serves as an economic barrier; it’s proof that live theater is not nearly as egalitarian as film. Of course, the fact that there’s a debate at all is indicative of a thawing in those socio-economic lines. But the looks I’ve received for wearing Chucks — even with a nice outfit — would indicate that these rules serve to prove who the right people are.

Now, things are getting better. There are lotteries, student discounts, education outreach programs, rush tickets, etc. Up at the Stratford Festival, there are two-for-one deals, half off tickets, and a program for high school and college aged kids to get tickets from $15 bucks (which is how A and I got half of our tickets, to be perfectly honest). But, and this is a big but, a lot of these programs end when you turn 26. Sure, you can still rush or go for the lottery, but then you’re leaving things up to luck. And theater shouldn’t be about luck. Theater is too important, and too wonderful, to be left up to luck.

Back in Shakespeare’s day, groundling “seats” cost a penny. All but the most absolutely destitute could afford to go to the Globe for Bill’s latest project, and they would see the same show as everyone else. But then came the big divide during the Restoration. The rich got the “legitimate” theater while the poor got music halls and vaudeville. Eventually, we got film and audiences converged once more. But theater… theater remained the province of the rich. (As did opera, of course.) And this is not right. Because that economic divide in audiences has also lead to the belief that theater is elitist, especially stuff like Shakespeare. Theater-goers are the rich, out-of-touch types, too snooty and fancy to know what “real folk” like. And that, in turn, has led to the belief that stuff like Shakespeare is boring… even though he’s got as many dick jokes as anyone could want.

We need to make a campaign to fix that. Theater needs to be for everyone. It shouldn’t be about age or luck, but allowing everyone in. Will it end up being a little rowdier than we’re used to? Yes. But maybe that’ll make the experience just a little bit more genuine. Because I, for one, wish theater was more like it was in Shakespeare’s day.

(A would also want me to tell everyone this post is brought to you by the fact that she couldn’t see a show she really wanted to see because she just aged out of the Student Discount programs. Maybe it sounds whiney, but that should not have happened. People who want to see theater should be able to see theater regardless of their economic status.)



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