The Habima theater box office, Tel Aviv.
The Habima theater box office, Tel Aviv. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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I usually write here about a specific production, or a figure from the world of the theater, or my personal experiences as a witness to these. This time I want - no, I feel an obligation - to write about a joint production by all the theaters in Israel. It has been running successfully for nearly 30 years now. It is known as "discount tickets," sold at end-of-season prices even if the season hasn't yet started. The lead role in this production is played by money, disguised by a variety of different names. The theater management, directors, actors and audience are only extras in this show.

A blistering critique of this production was published recently by Zipi Shohat in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz (July 26 ), based of interviews with managers of the country's established repertory theaters (Habima, the Cameri, Beit Lessin, Haifa Theater, Be'er Sheva Theater, the Khan and Gesher ) and a thorough and precise reading of publicly available financial data concerning the theaters' activity in recent seasons.

The plot is very simple: The theaters sell a total of about 4.7 million tickets annually. This is to say, so it will be perfectly clear, that on every single day of the year, including Sabbaths and holidays, about 13,000 theater seats are filled; or in other words, every evening in many places around the country there are between 20 and 30 theater performances. The prices of theater tickets in Israel are among the lowest in the world: My email inbox is inundated with offers for tickets costing NIS 50 to productions that are presented in advertisements as dizzying successes. This is the positive part of the story.

The less positive part of the story is that despite these numbers - according to which lots of people can see theater cheaply, and there are lots of productions that have an audience - nearly all the theaters are in the red. Collectively, their deficits currently amount to about NIS 80 million. And these aren't deficits that were born today, but rather the cumulative result of years of the same pace of activity. The Cameri is the only theater that does not have a publicized deficit but even its executive director, Noam Semel, admits it is walking a tightrope between balance and loss (no one is even talking about profit ). And the strangest thing is that the official prices of tickets are high: If you try to buy an individual ticket to a show in Tel Aviv on the Internet, the price per ticket is between NIS 150 and NIS 200.

So why are theaters selling tickets wholesale at prices much lower than what the productions are costing them? Why are they insisting on losing money? For art's sake? I have castigated the theaters too many times - okay, so there have also been some good productions - for their offerings being too commercial. So is someone here pulling the wool over someone's eyes and, if so, who's pulling it over whose?

Shohat showed the data to Tzipi Pines (executive director and artistic director of Beit Lessin ), Eli Zohar and Lena Kreindlin (chairman of the Gesher Theater board and its executive manager ), Noam Semel (executive director of the Cameri ), Danny Weiss (executive director of the Khan Theater ) and Shmulik Yifrah (executive director of the Be'er Sheva Theater ), and asked them these questions. They replied that ticket prices are indeed too low. Only Nitza Ben Zvi (executive director of the Haifa Theater ) disagreed. All of them admitted, some grudgingly and some outright (Pines ), that it is the theater executives themselves who, because of the competition among them, lowered ticket prices and are to blame.

The art of self-deception

In a way, this is a story of parricide, killing your parents and then wanting people to feel sorry for you because you are an orphan - by way of analogy, of course, because these are not matters of life and death, but rather of money. And in reply to the question I asked above - who is pulling the wool over whose eyes - the answer to both parts of the question is the same, and it is sad: the managers of the public theaters. They are deceiving themselves, and have been doing so for many years now.

To the question of how a theater can lose money and nevertheless sell very cheap tickets, the answer is that this is thanks to the managers of all the subsidized repertory theaters in Israel. Money plays a role here called "cash flow." As long there is money coming in every day, the business is functioning despite deficits (with the exception of Habima, which is a special case because it has both a deficit and a cash flow problem, because of which it is not paying its suppliers ). And in order to understand how we reached this state of affairs (not Habima's, which is a story in its own right ), it is necessary to go back in time.

Up until the 1970s, there were theaters that had already managed to exist (all the ones mentioned above, except Beit Lessin and Gesher ) from one crisis to the next and with an irregular patchwork of subsidies. Then, in the days when Lea Porat was in charge of culture at the Education and Culture Ministry, the Levinsky committee arose. The committee determined that there were bigger theaters, for which the state would fund 60 percent of the budget, with the other 40 percent coming from the box office; and middle-sized theaters where the proportion was even better - 70 percent state support and 30 percent from the box office. Within a number of years it emerged that even in this situation the theaters were losing money, and the Hezi Shelah committee was established. This committee concluded that one of the reasons for the theaters' losses was the productions that were created in-house but performed at other venues, and it tried to create a structure for an "appropriate" budget for various kind of theaters (based on the size of the artistic, technical and management staff and the number of shows annually ), which would be the condition for the state's subsidy, provided the rest came from the box office. This, of course, gave rise to a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy.

Now the theater managers said to themselves: The state is giving us a certain sum annually, from its perspective as a fixed percentage of our budget. But if, in any case, we are dependent on the box office, what is preventing us from trying to make more from the box office? In this way it will always be possible to come complaining to the state, and ask for more money to ensure they contribute the percentage they've promised us. So, how do we increase income if we are dependent on the box office?

The answer was simple: Let's sell not on current account but rather on reverse credit: We'll get cash flow now in return for goods we'll undertake to supply in the future. Let's create mechanisms whereby we will get money now for shows we will produce in the future and tickets that will be used in the future. This resulted in the introduction of subscriptions for theatergoers and the sale of series of productions to venues in outlying areas of the country.

What was nice about these two measures is that they originally had first-rate cultural and social justifications. The subscription program, whereby a theatergoer purchased a number of tickets (usually in pairs ) for a series of plays that the theater promises to produce in the future as part of its artistic identity card, creates identification and consensus and an educational and cultural tie between the theater and its audience. The sale of series of plays to venues in outlying areas that do not support their own creative in-house troupe ensures that theater is performed outside the center of the country, which is compatible with the notion of population dispersal in a small country, and also ensures activity in the regional halls built around Israel with funds from, and to the greater glory of, the Mifal Hapayis national lottery.

However, just as socialism and Zionism were exalted ideas in theory but somehow became morally corrupt in practice, so it was with the outlying venues and subscription programs. In both cases what happened was wholesale marketing of tickets, which justified a discount for the buyer. But when you don't compel a subscriber to see specific plays, but rather sell him an open subscription of 14 tickets that he can use as he likes, he can invite his whole family and lots of friends to attend one performance instead of going to the theater with a partner to see seven plays. And when a theater sells to an outlying venue a series of eight performances six months from now at a ridiculous price (because if they don't then a competitor will, and they'll be left with a production for which they have agreed to pay the top-billed actor for a minimum of eight shows a month and don't have anywhere to perform them ), then we reach the situation we are in. There is demand because everyone buys the discount not the show, and there is a need to perform in order to get cash flow today in the hope that things will be better tomorrow. And the deficits mushroom.

Presaging disaster

The above is a simplification and a crude generalization of a system in which there were, and still are, many people with good intentions, in a field built on illusions and a need for love and immediate gratification. This is the field of the performing arts, in which there is an incestuous relationship between art and entertainment in a way that is even more confusing than the connection between love and sex. And I haven't yet mentioned the tendency of theater people to change masks from moment to moment, from a vow of fervent devotion to a mask that conceals conspiracies, nor have I mentioned the fact that politics is involved in this game, because the subsidizing state that never gives enough not only wants to meddle, but also wants to pretend that it doesn't meddle except to ensure fair ticket prices and to bring "culture" to the periphery.

What is most amazing is that - in a system in which the considerations are so distorted, in which there is a crazy credit bubble (of money that has already been charged for merchandise to be provided in the future, when it will clearly cost more ) - sometimes there are productions in the public repertory theaters that are all, or mostly, good, and that there are so many talented people in this business.

What was interesting in Shohat's comprehensive survey was that each of the theater managers admitted individually that this situation may be good for theatergoers (with respect to price, not necessarily with respect to value ) but that it presages disaster for the system. Some of them believe that the state should subsidize more (this isn't going to happen, to my regret - not in my lifetime or theirs, apparently. There isn't even social justice, so who can think about cultural justice? ). Some of them believe theater managements should agree among themselves not sell so cheaply. I don't see the antitrust commissioner buying this, and I see even less theater managements believing each others' promises.

So what will happen, you ask, and I ask myself, too. Most probably nothing, and two years from now a similar article will be written. Or else what will happen is what happened to the man who had a wound on his finger that didn't heal (in the original story the wound was on a different appendage, but this is a family newspaper ). One doctor told him it was necessary to amputate the finger. The man demanded a second opinion and went from one doctor to the next until he came to the great specialist on such wounds. The doctor examined it and the man asked fearfully: Nu, is it necessary to amputate? No, said the doctor, it will fall off by itself.