Does a TKTS Booth on the Upper West Side Really Broaden Access to Broadway?

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Jim Henderson

Iit's true that all New Yorkers can take advantage of any TKTS booth by the very fact of their mobility, but this philosophy—the idea that patrons should travel to a centralized, civic arts space for their cultural uplift—has proven over the past decades to rely on faulty logic.

This week, TKTS opened a new pop-up ticket booth near Lincoln Center, on Broadway between 62nd and 63rd streets. Selling discount tickets for Broadway shows from a location on the Upper West Side makes financial sense—it is a thriving residential area with many potential theatregoers. It is also a neighborhood with a large percentage of residents who could probably pay full price for those very same tickets; a neighborhood with plenty of supermarkets, 79 percent college graduates, and only 11 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line (48 districts have higher poverty rates). The incarceration rate is half the Manhattan and citywide rates, and its basic demographic stats are significant, too: 67 percent white, 15 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian, 7 percent black. Only 8 percent of UWS residents have limited English proficiency. While a neighborhood TKTS is good news for Upper West Siders, it’s an odd choice for a discount ticket booth that aims to increase access to the arts by giving locals a way to purchase discount tickets without schlepping to a high-traffic tourist site.

The choice is easier to understand historically, when you consider the obstacles TKTS has faced since June of 1973, when it opened with high ideals about expanding access to the arts at a moment of crisis for the municipality. Even at its start, some questioned whether its mission matched its location. The discount ticketing initiative was designed to help a city in a financial and civic freefall. Producers on Broadway feared that Time Square’s image crisis would irreparably damage tourism. As city boosters devised ways to attract out-of-towners to New York City, performers and producers worked to keep the lights on in their theatres.

Arguments flared over the best use of the new discount ticketing program: Would a booth placed in Times Square catch in its net patrons who could pay full price, but would naturally prefer a discount? Many voices around the city argued that the time was ripe to target a new generation and profile of theatregoers, as the demographics of New York changed and black and Latino/a residents could fill seats. If one of its goals was to expand theatre audiences across lines of race and class, some argued, why not put the TKTS booth somewhere that might easily reach outer-borough audiences? Or how about a booth on a college campus?

Some plays refused to participate in the early years of TKTS: they saw that the booth was advertising in airports and railroad stations, speaking mainly to tourists and neglecting the opportunity to reach citizens across the five boroughs, many of whom already clamored for increased access to the arts. They pursued other strategies to spread Broadway beyond Times Square: in 1974, the visionary director and arts administrator, Vinnette Carroll, took free performances of her Broadway hit “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” to parks and community centers throughout the five boroughs to advertise the musical. Corporate and city dollars funded the initiative, called “Broadway in the Parks,” which made its way to Bed-Stuy, South Jamaica, the Lower East Side and nine other locations.

We don’t so much remember these arguments; indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Times Square without TKTS. Like many initiatives begun in the period during New York’s mid-1970s financial crisis, the original TKTS booth was intended to be temporary. It was a short-term balm for the arts, a pilot experiment with democratic aspirations of attracting a mix of people to a neighborhood and its theatres. But the tin can construction of the first TKTS booth was more durable than it looked, and it thrived for decades, even becoming a symbol of Broadway itself. In 1974 another Manhattan TKTS box office opened, this time in the financial district. (Brooklyn did not receive its Metrotech ticket booth until 2008, the same year that the ramshackle booth in Duffy Square received its $18 million overhaul.)

Why question one of the great institutions of Broadway, especially TKTS, which has proven to be a success attracting first-time Broadway theatregoers? In today’s cities, where discussions of wage inequality and de facto segregation are ever-pressing, the lack of access to cultural resources in certain neighborhoods still contrasts starkly with the incredible concentration of opportunities that exist in others.

Yes, it’s true that all New Yorkers can take advantage of any TKTS booth by the very fact of their mobility, but this philosophy—the idea that patrons should travel to a centralized, civic arts space for their cultural uplift—has proven over the past decades to rely on faulty logic. Researchers who look at neighborhood dynamics have time and again demonstrated what we know to be intuitively true: Wealthy residents feel a greater sense of ownership over cultural resources than those at the other end of the income scale, who have a great number of barriers standing in their way of attending arts events. And study after study shows that Broadway audiences still look consistently like the demographics of the Upper West Side: 80 percent are white, 78 percent completed college, and many have already attended other shows.

The fact that the Upper West Side has such a sterling quality of life does not mean that it doesn’t deserve a TKTS booth of its very own, but it does mean that many UWS residents probably have the ability to travel the 20 minutes it would take them to get to the Times Square booth, and quite likely have the leisure time and expendable income to do so. Someone in another neighborhood, however, with fewer opportunities for cultural enrichment for kids, with a lower quality of life in every one of the categories mentioned above, could desperately use a TKTS booth, with an accompanying advertising campaign to let residents know it’s there.

The creation of TKTS was just one of a whole slew of initiatives intended to modernize and improve ticket-selling operations at Broadway houses, but also to insure that the future of Broadway would be healthy and heterogeneous. Cultural inequity is an undeniable byproduct of urban inequality. Surely New York—and cities around the country—want to take advantage of the remarkable enthusiasm around “Hamilton.” The musical is breaking many barriers and attracting new theatregoers; its long-term effect on spectatorship is yet to be known. But we should not repeat the mistakes of the 1970s, after musicals like “The Wiz” and “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” brought new audiences to Broadway, which then quickly returned to the status quo. The Theatre Development Fund, the force behind TKTS, deserves enormous credit for working to expand access to theatre, period. Yet they can’t do it alone, and expanding theatre attendance across the map of the whole city is the next step if we are to fulfill the original promise of TKTS.

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Hillary Miller is Assistant Professor of Theatre at California State University, Northridge. Her book, Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

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