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“All the World’s a Stage”: Improving Theatrical Accessibility in the U.S.

In 1600, an English peasant could pay one penny to stand and watch the first staging of a Shakespearean masterpiece. This penny was the price of a loaf of bread or approximately 10% of a worker’s wages for the day. By contrast, the cheapest ticket price currently listed for Broadway’s most recent smash hit, Hamilton, is $260, which is approximately double the average daily wage for an American worker. The performing arts, as an actor or a spectator, are notoriously inaccessible in the United States for people who are geographically and economically disadvantaged, and we must examine how our country values the arts at all levels in order to address the roots of this problem.

Participating in theater can be linked to a myriad of benefits for people of all ages, especially school-aged children. Though some might be skeptical of focusing on student participation in the arts, there is significant evidence that access to the arts correlates to higher test scores and higher GPAs for students. Students of the arts are also more likely to stay in school and less likely to participate in drug use. Participation in arts programs can even be linked to higher terminal degrees down the road. Overall, being involved in artistic endeavors gives students a sense of belonging, responsibility, and achievement. Yet, despite these considerable benefits associated with theater, it is often one of the first departments from which funding is cut.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is consistently on the budgetary chopping block, especially under Republican presidents. The NEA works to fund arts education and artists throughout the United States, but the organization is often criticized by conservatives, like Fox Commentator Tucker Carlson, for being “welfare for rich, liberal elites.” However, contrary to that assertion, 40% of NEA-funded activities take place in low-income neighborhoods, and more than half of all NEA events take place in areas where median household income is below $50,000. While both chambers of Congress have passed budgets that include $155 million for the NEA during the 2019 fiscal year, President Trump’s proposed budget eliminates all funding for the agency. The NEA provides vital funding for projects that would be otherwise unsupported by their local communities. In 2016, more students in the northeast were enrolled in a visual art class than their peers in other parts of the country. This trend carries into the adult world; as arts become concentrated on coasts, they also become financially accessible only to the wealthy. To counteract this trend of inaccessibility, NEA funding is crucial in providing support to arts programs in underserved areas.  

The arts must continue to be funded and subsidized by the government. In order to ensure the continued existence of arts programs for students and artists across the country, Congress could pass preventative legislation that would prohibit further cutting of the NEA budget. Alternately, advocates of the arts could turn to the state level and lobby to increase funding from state and local governments. However, students in primarily blue states already receive more exposure to the arts, and delegating arts funding as a responsibility of the states would likely only exacerbate this trend. Access to professional theater could be improved by the construction of more suitable venues for touring companies. If the federal government, or state governments, were to subsidize the construction of new performing arts centers in smaller cities, touring companies would be able to perform for more rural residents, thus combatting geographical disadvantages.

Attending professional performances has likewise been linked to a plethora of benefits for America’s students. Watching live performances can boost tolerance, social perspective taking, and even vocabulary of youth audiences; during a study on this subject, students who watched a movie version of the same story did not reap these benefits. Attending performances also has the added benefit of encouraging students to participate in the arts, which leads to the aforementioned academic advantages. A live theatrical performance has no equal. Actors and audience sharing a space cannot be replicated by more modern technologies such as movies and television. Considering these benefits, access to professional performances must be extended to as many Americans as possible.

The United States should look to other countries for models to follow when discussing funding for the arts and acceptable ticket prices. In particular, many European countries place significantly more emphasis on funding the arts; Finland spends 2.10% of all public spending on the arts, while the U.S. only devotes 0.13% of public spending. Norway has 17 theaters that are wholly funded by national and regional governments. The Arts Council of England has pledged £1.45 billion worth of public funds during the next four years to support artistic projects. Beyond government funding, ticket prices are drastically different between Broadway and London’s equivalent, the West End. While Hamilton tickets on Broadway max out around $950, the most expensive seats in London for the same show are £250, or $320.55. This discrepancy in ticket pricing makes theater much more affordable for the common Londoner than the common New Yorker. However, London pricing is still not accessible for all, and other solutions must be implemented. Hamilton runs a daily online lottery in which hopefuls can enter to win up to two $10 tickets to the performance. The lottery system isn’t a perfect solution, as it does not take income into account when selecting winners. However, if the average Broadway ticket price more closely matched prices in London, and if a greater number of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional, and Community theaters committed to holding lotteries or selling a handful of their tickets each night at an affordable price, accessibility to theater for lower-income individuals would be greatly improved.

One key way in which the arts can be rendered more accessible is by increasing the number of performances that are filmed and disseminated online. Some theatergoers have taken this idea into their own hands, filming performances on their own cell phones. The creation of these videos, called bootlegs, is illegal, and distracting for actors and other audience members alike.  Furthermore, bootlegs permit people to view theater without any compensation for the artists who created it. Lastly, the vast majority of bootleg footage is incredibly low quality. Watching a performance through such a shaky lens takes away from the viewer’s experience, and it may even discourage individuals from watching live theater in the future. Bootlegs are illegal for many reasons, but those who film performances might be onto something in their effort to make theater more accessible.

Professional, rather than amateur, recordings of performances would be one solution that reconciles artists’ qualms about recordings with the inaccessibility of live performance. In June 2016, Broadway’s She Loves Me was live streamed worldwide. BroadwayHD, the platform on which She Loves Me was streamed, has begun to disseminate high quality theatrical recordings of other shows as well. This is a good start, but only a handful of Broadway performances have been professionally recorded and released for streaming on such a service. If it became standard practice to record plays and musicals, and to make these recordings available on a streaming service, like BroadwayHD, or a more mainstream service such as Netflix or Hulu, those who cannot be present for a show due to geographic, economic, or other constraints could watch the performance at their leisure. Streaming these performances would increase exposure to theater for those who live in rural areas, artists would be compensated, and their work would not be marred by poor film quality.

The inequity in American theater and arts begins in early education and persists through adulthood. Funding for the arts in public schools is constantly questioned and cut, despite clear evidence that arts education improves student outcomes. And unlike English peasants who could watch a show without much financial burden, prices for Broadway tickets are skyrocketing, leaving many unable to afford the steep prices. Government officials and leading theatrical producers must make sure performances and arts opportunities are more widely accessible, in order for all to reap the considerable benefits of watching and participating in theater.

Photo: “Broadway!”

About the Author

Zander Blitzer '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Zander can be reached at alexandra_blitzer@brown.edu

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