Minima Dramatica: The Tyranny of Space

As a theater director and self-producer in the city of New York, I have come up face to face with the tyranny of space. It is a fact of making work in New York City that the reason our work is so expensive is because of the space that it necessarily takes up, and this a city that for better or worse has always profited from space. Whether it’s the stiff-arming of the Lenape for beads and pearls (as the apocryphal tale goes), or the rampant division of Loyalist land above Wall Street that built the subsequent riches of families like the Astors, or the first instance of urban renewal with the destruction of the predominantly immigrant and African-American Five Points neighborhood presaging the great modernist urban renewals under the hand of Mr. Moses, or the racist redlining of the suburbs, or the most recent tenant harassment tactics and wide-scale rezoning that have made New York City real estate once again one of the hottest commodities, the battle for space in New York is as old as New York itself. This is a question theater needs to reckon with in more than just a financial way, but also spiritually. We must question what part we play in the story of space in New York City.

What we have to remember, theater takes space. What does that mean? It means that as theaters, not only are we providing space, but we are taking space. The 4th Street Arts Block, which houses such essential theaters like La Mama, New York Theatre Workshop and WOW Café, also houses the Cooper Square Committee. The Cooper Square Committee was founded to resist the Slum Clearance plan led by Robert Moses, and today seeks to provide counseling for tenants who are under threat of losing their apartments, and is actively seeking out means for tenants to have some form of affordable housing equity and maintain some form of affordable housing on the Lower East Side. Many of the apartments on 4th Street are co-ops (such as WOW Café’s building, which I remember frequenting when the closest stores next door were two bodegas). The Alexander Seltzer building that once was the Astor Library (yes, New York’s first real-estate moguls) and later became a home for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and then, of course, the home of the Joseph Papp New York Public Theater.

Let’s imagine for a second that these spaces are not the world-famous theater spaces they are. Let us imagine the Public Library never moved out of the space on Astor in 1911 or that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society leased it to another immigrant aid program. Let us imagine that Fourth Street was converted into a block-wide co-op, where rents were kept stable for Low-Middle income families. Let us replace these mammoth artistic cultural centers with small community theaters, perhaps an auditorium for performances as one of the many facets of the now thriving community center that is the Astor Center (in our imagination, think of something like the educational alliance or even Abrons), and then maybe a small theater that features community programming on fourth street, including work that is in Spanish and Fujianese or Cantonese, representing more than half of the population of that district. Which benefits our communities more? It is simply a thought experiment, which is to say that this space that we give theater is also space we take away, not only from other artists, but from our city. It is a space that in many senses has been granted to us (quite literally). What is the debt that we owe, not only those grant-making organizations, but the communities that comprise our neighbors, which we ostensibly serve?

The median income for a family of four in New York City is $50,711 according to the 2010-2012 census. For the neighborhood of the Lower East Side District 3 Neighborhood (which includes New York Theatre Workshop and the Public Theater), this median income goes down to $41,635 for a family of four. (For the record, New York City defines Low Income families as families making under $57,240.) As I am currently typing this, the average price of a Broadway ticket is $284 – for a family of four to attend a Broadway show, they would be paying $1,136 just on tickets alone. The city of New York designates affordable rent to be 30 percent of the median income. In the city of New York, 30 percent of $50,711 monthly would be $1,267. Theater tickets for Broadway shows are nearly as expensive as a month of rent. What changes when we look at Off-Broadway? As I am currently looking, the seasons of the major LORT theaters in NYC all have tickets for non-members that are around the $70-$100 range. For a family of four, that amounts to between $280-$400 dollars for a night out at the theater (not counting transportation and dinner). For a middle-income family in NYC that would amount to between 6-10 percent of their monthly income. For a family in District 3 (where many of these theaters are located), that number increases to between 8-12 percent of a monthly income. Essentially our theaters are charging families around a third of the median rent of this city to see theater. Note that with low income families this number would only increase.

This was not always the case, there was a time when Off-Broadway tickets were much more affordable – and Broadway tickets went up $100 this year alone. The question then becomes, where else do we see such a LARGE increase in such a short period of time? One needs only look at the real estate boom. The average rents in the East Village for 2017 are at $3,927. The income you would need to make for a family of four to make this one bedroom affordable is $13,090 a month, or $157,080 a year. The average income of a Broadway theatergoer is about 22 percent higher, or $201,500.

The question, in the end, is how much we give and value space in this city. For people able to afford exorbitant rents, exorbitant theater prices are logical. For whom is this the case? For both the real estate agents, and theater economists that make the argument that this is the byproduct of a booming theater (or rental) economy. Why else would a New York Times article about the exorbitant price of theatre tickets contain this quote from Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist, and chairman of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush?

“People say they believe in capitalism, but when prices rise to clear markets, they say it’s unfair,” he said. “I have some sympathy for that when you’re talking about fundamental rights, like perhaps health care. But scarce tickets to ‘Hamilton’?”

I asked him if “Hamilton” tickets had been worth the cost. “Every penny,” Mr. Mankiw said. “It was fantastic, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.”

This is the Hamilton, of course, got its start in the Public Theater, the same space that once used to house a Public Library, and an immigrant aid society.

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