How New York theater looks from Tonys' headquarters

TICKET prices for New York theater must be reduced, according to Isabelle Stevenson, president of the American Theatre Wing, which presented the 42nd annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards honoring excellence in the theater on CBS TV last night, live from the Minskoff Theatre here. ``Although our annual broadcast says `Come to the theater' and attracts new people to the New York theater, when they do come the prices are disturbingly high,'' she said in an interview.

The Tony show is presented by the American Theatre Wing in conjunction with the League of American Theater and Producers, but the outspoken Mrs. Stevenson doesn't hesitate to take theater owners to task for ``those $35, $37.50, $50 prices. The theater owners set the prices and when I ask why they are always the same prices, I get evasive answers. But it all boils down to the fact that there are three major theater owners in New York who have basically a cartel.''

The petite Mrs. Stevenson, a dedicated theatergoer who was once an actress and dancer herself, makes many pointed observations about the New York theater and calls for other marketing changes to make certain the New York theater survives intact.

She believes there ought to be more publicity for TKS, the system whereby last-minute theatergoers can obtain half-price tickets to current shows by waiting in line at Duffy Square or another downtown location. Producers who think those sales interfere with box office sales are wrong, according to Mrs. Stevenson, because ``the stand-in-line audience is different from the impulse box office audience.''

Other Stevenson observations:

There should be lower-priced senior-citizen tickets for theater just as there are for movies. ``It's about time that producers and theater owners recognized the fact that some seniors need help in order to go to the theater.''

There seem to be more affluent black theatergoers, many of whom are attracted by improved merchandising of group sales by black organizations in the suburbs.

Television advertising of Broadway plays has helped tremendously at the box office and is partially offsetting the power of newspaper reviews. ``You can't totally reverse the effect of a bad review. But if reviews are mixed, a strong ad campaign may overcome the negative. That's the case with `Chess' right now.''

The dramatic moments enacted on the Tony TV show have tremendous impact on the future of a play. Last year's effective ``Fences'' excerpt helped the play at the box office.

Why should the price of tickets be so high (mostly $37.50 and $25) for ``Cirque du Soleil,'' the superb tented circus, sans animals, currently playing on public land at Battery Park City?

Stevenson, in her 23rd year as president, works very hard to keep the American Theatre Wing involved in essential theater activities. She initiated ``Working in Theater''' seminars which now air on many cable TV systems and which, on cassette, are used as classroom devices by many universities.

``Saturday Theater for Children'' is another of her projects, and you can be sure that ``Cirque du Soleil'' will be hearing from her shortly about setting aside free tickets for New York schoolchildren.

Stevenson believes that there is much less talk these days about the theater's being dead. And for good reason. According to figures just released by the League of American Theaters and Producers, the 1987-88 season had the best box office grosses in Broadway history, with attendance growing to 8.1 million theatergoers from the 7 million of last season.

An article on the winners of this year's Tony Awards will appear on Wednesday.

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