Posted September, 2006
To the Editor:
Let’s be honest here. The Williamstown Theatre Festival has been all about itself and not about its audience for years. It is a mere coincidence that Roger Rees’ term at the helm commenced as the WTF moved in the ’62 Center for Theatre & Dance, the most audience-unfriendly theatre ever built.
While Rees didn’t invent the WTF’s self-serving philosophy, he has certainly expanded on it. Moving the Free Theatre productions indoors and scheduling performances at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., effectively shutting out working families, was described by Rees as being for the benefit of the Festival participants who couldn’t attend the shows under the previous early evening schedule. Despite the Festival’s fancy rhetoric about the Free Theatre being a “thank you” to the local community, this schedule change plainly states for whom the show is really being mounted.
I was especially appalled by a program Rees tried to institute during his first season called “Two into Three.” I quote from the Festival’s March 31, 2005 press release describing this program: “To offer a more meaningful theatre experience and encourage interaction between our audience and the WTF company, the Festival is offering patrons the option of ordering an extra ticket…for a member of the Festival’s training company. Patrons…will be matched with a young theatre talent who will join them for the performance and, if desired, a meal before or after the show.”
Apparently the unwashed masses who buy tickets for WTF performances were thought to be so awe-struck by their proximity to “real theatre people” that they would shell out money to buy them theatre tickets and dinner! Not surprisingly, this program was not continued this past summer.
This program was especially offensive since the WTF has been “packing” their houses with apprentices and other Festival insiders for years. The WTF is the only so-called professional theatre that I have ever attended where a certain section of the audience routinely laughs heartily at in-jokes and cheers inappropriately for their comrades on stage. My husband and I run a youth theatre company and we don’t allow our students to behave so unprofessionally.
At a recent press conference announcing plans to replace all the seats at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, New York Senator Joe Bruno was quoted as saying “The mind only stays engaged as long as your seat is comfortable.” The seats in the MainStage theatre of the ’62 Center are not comfortable, and many of them have only a partial view of the stage, yet the WTF charges the same price for them as for full-view seats. I had a friend who attended a show this past season and discovered himself seated in the second balcony with some apprentices who announced loudly “I can’t believe people pay to sit in these seats” and proceeded to move downstairs to better seats, an option the paying customers didn’t have.
On any given summer night I can be in a comfortable seat seeing a good show at Barrington Stage, Oldcastle, the Colonial, Shakespeare & Company, MASS MoCA, or the Theater Barn in 45 minutes or less, in many cases for much less money than I would spend at the WTF. A slightly longer drive will bring me to the Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Dorset Theatre Festival, the Mac-Haydn, the Mahaiwe, the Chester Theatre Company, Jacob’s Pillow, and the Weston Playhouse. The WTF needs to shed the foolish and long-outdated concept that they are God’s cultural gift to the poor uneducated hicks in the sticks and realize that they have serious competition and an educated consumer base of locals and tourists who are more interested in quality entertainment than in big names.
Bottom line: The Festival treats their paying customers as second-class citizens, completely ignores the local community, and is now saddled with a building that is uncomfortable and uninviting. Even if they were staging the most wonderful shows on earth they would be losing audience and revenue. I spent a decade in the world of non-profit fundraising and I can tell you that no one opens their wallet unless and until they feel a personal connection to an institution. If your donors and patrons feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and unwanted in your theatre, it won’t be long before they become somebody else’s donors and patrons.
Gail M. Burns