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Theater for the 99%

Bucking a trend, new Gehry-designed Signature Theatre Center is selling cheap seats to top-class plays.

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Ms. Mann called the affordable-ticket initiative "imperative," saying, "Most of the great plays being written are not just for the 1 percent. Often the people one wants to reach are the middle class and the working-class folks or students or young people." Making theater accessible cultivates "not only the next generation of theatergoers," she says, "but the next generation of theatermakers."

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Signature leaders hope the initiative will become a workable business model for other institutions "to attract and galvanize different kinds of audiences," says Kate Levin, New York's commissioner of cultural affairs, which could "have a meaningful ripple effect for the arts in general."

"The key to the entire center," Houghton says, "is to create communication and community," a sort of village green for exchange of ideas. This is where Mr. Gehry's design is crucial, with 10 percent of its footprint devoted to a vast, loftlike lobby envisioned as a crossroads for mingling before or after a show. Houghton calls it "putting backstage center stage," with the lobby a venue for collisions between writers, actors, directors, and audience.

"I wanted to create a space," Gehry says, "that celebrates and enhances the intimacy between the performer and the audience," an interaction he calls "palpable" in a live performance.

The new center is no flamboyant Guggenheim-Bilbao – the expressionistic museum where Gehry unleashed his Baroque imagination. Adhering to a stringent budget, Gehry used stained plywood panels on theater walls in a cracked-earth motif, as if to suggest the vital juice is on stage and in the audience. Yet the theaters and spacious lobby and staircase create a dramatic atmosphere that gets the adrenalin flowing, an interior as energizing as the activity it holds.

"People are beginning to buy special experiences," Mann explains, where they seek connection and depth of involvement. "Thank goodness," she adds, "because it can't all be 'Gee, how many helicopters can fall from the ceiling?'"

Ms. Levin agrees, noting a trend away from bland, utilitarian theaters concerned more with crowd control than hospitality. Design that elevates the experience and offers an opportunity to congregate and continue the conversation creates, she says, "meaningful public space."

Norton describes the center as a grass-roots artopia, with master playwrights mentoring younger aspirants and all engaged in outreach to the community through readings or Q-and-A discussions, producing "a very fertile cross-pollination." He hopes the result is "a buzzing community of artistic ferment," an artist colony "like you fantasize about when you get into the arts."

Given the preponderance of frothy, recycled musicals, revivals, star vehicles, and spectacle-laden knockoffs of movies or cartoons on Broadway, one often hears the complaint that theater is dead. "The theater's no more dead than air," Houghton counters. "The theater is life."

"We don't go to the theater just to be entertained," Norton says. "We go looking for meaning, insights in how to understand our lives and our society and our place in the world better, to get outside the echo chamber of our own narrow experience and be expanded."

"I have no worries the theater will disappear," Eno says. He sees the new Signature as a place "to hear things and feel things and think things," helping him to "potentially become a larger and better person."

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