Anyone who still insists the theater is an irrelevant heirloom art in the age of the digital handheld device hasn’t been paying attention. Broadway just racked up its most profitable season ever, grossing $1.44 billion. And as those who have ever surfed StubHub for Hamilton tickets can attest, success has its price. At $849, the hit hip-hop musical’s top ticket set a new Broadway list-price record that reached as high as $10,000 on the online ticket exchanges.
If that kind of inflationary spiral is increasingly making Western civilization’s most hallowed of narrative arts look like a 1 percenter's pastime, then fasten your seat belts. Last week, L.A. theater-ticket pricing took a giant leap into the stratosphere with the premiere of You, a $5,000-per-ticket immersive production courtesy of producer-creator Edward Tucker, director Daniel Student and their Hall & Mirrors production company.
Perhaps even more extraordinary for a show that comes complete with a personal concierge for each ticket holder and provides limousine service to the secret, 10,000-square-foot downtown warehouse that contains the production’s designed environments, You performs each night before an audience of one.
In the argot of immersive theater, You is known as a “one-on-one,” because the subgenre often employs a 1-to-1 ratio between actor and audience to achieve the uncanny effects that become possible when a spectator is brought into intimate physical proximity with an actor. (You actually boasts an ensemble of seven.) But a better way to think of one-on-one performance might be as first-person theater, since it demands that the audience member become the central participatory character in narratives that tend to be experienced as highly subjective and powerfully introspective self-encounters.
That, Tucker and Student explain, is what they are gambling on to deliver the kind of transformative experience that will persuade audiences to spend what is for many more than a month’s salary — and to walk away feeling like it was worth every penny.
“We will deliver the show of a lifetime for them,” promises Tucker, who is also the writer of the show. ”One of the really interesting themes that runs through 20th-century literature is this notion [that], freed from all constraints, human beings turn into monsters or angels. What we're doing is giving people an environment, safe and respectful to our actors, to be freed from all constraints. And everything about the evening is designed to give them that one moment: Who do you become? This isn't about us. This is about you. That's the promise of [You]."
The structural conceit for You, which consists of a “menu” of short, rehearsed playlets that are performed throughout the space in the order of the audience member’s choosing, came out of a documentary Tucker had seen on chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s molecular gastronomy restaurant Alinea, which specializes in theatrically presented, 22-course tasting dinners that cost $400 to $500 (with wine).
“I was like, 'What if we create theater and make it along the analogue of the finest of fine dining?'" Tucker recalls. “The audience can participate and design his or her experience throughout the evening.”
“We're going to meet the audience in a public [place],” Student continues. “And one of our performers will welcome them, and that performer really kind of plays a host for the evening. … And then the idea is once you arrive in the space, and the door closes behind you and you step out of that car and the lights come on, you have that awed moment of — excuse my French — 'Holy shit! This is what they meant when they said they would build something for me.'”
The anchor point of the evening will be a working full bar that also serves as a neutral place between the various “courses.” That’s where the audience member begins, ends and, in between, can take a breather, drink an actual cocktail or non-alcoholic drink, and mostly choose the next turn in the experience.
“It's up to you to literally decide when that play — or as we call them, 'plates’ — will begin, and to make your way there yourself,” Student adds. “There is no running time. The idea [is] if someone wants to spend this fee and feel that they are full after half an hour, then they're full. And the last element of acting, 'You've finished your menu, are you done or do you want more?' And they say if they're done or they want more, and then you go, 'Great! If you're done, you're done. Thank you so much.'"
Student brings a deep stage background as a veteran director of plays and company-devised works in Philadelphia’s theater scene. Tucker, who holds a Ph.D. in rhetorical theory and was an adjunct professor before scrapping academia for a career as a conceptual sculptor in Seattle, is making his debut as a theater producer and writer. His touchstones tend to be drawn more from the world of conceptual performance art rather than the stage.
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“We're not charging money to be bling-bling,” Tucker explained about the steep price. “We're not Damien Hirst. We're not just like, 'Hey, our artistic significance is in how much we can charge,' and that's not to take away from Damien Hirst. I think [Andy] Warhol's comment about art and business [“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”] is right on point. But for us, that's not it. … Each show costs us $4,300 and change. So it's not like we're making a ton of money off [$5,000]. It's just that what we want to accomplish artistically costs $4,300 and change.”
A week before opening, Tucker said that You had already sold out its first seven evenings to several recording and TV stars, with the balance made up of executives from the corporate and finance worlds. And while the pair hope the audience will become more inclusive as word of the show spreads, they do not expect to see too many of L.A.’s existing immersive-theater enthusiasts in the audience. If the gamble succeeds, however, Tucker and Student will have moved L.A.’s immersive scene a giant step closer to being the commercially viable jobs engine that its practitioners have been trying to develop in Los Angeles.
“If you can create a vibrant, alive economy for theater, anchored by both the high price point, the mid price point and the reasonable price point, that's good for the economy of theater in Los Angeles,” Tucker reasoned. “That is as deep a commitment for what we're doing as anything. It is a part of the art to create that entrée point into what art and theater can be in Los Angeles.”
You, by Hall & Mirrors, is currently playing at an undisclosed location downtown. For tickets and performance times, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.