THERE SEEMS to be some concern expressed recently regarding the booking policies of the Kennedy Center. Since the Center is a national institution, I feel the public is entitled to know what procedures we follow and how we arrive at the decisions that determine our actions.
First, I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping the theaters fully occupied, because the rental fees received from our auditioriums represent a major portion of our income. Since we receive no government funding for our theater operations, we are totally dependent for survival on this income, along with contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals. It is true that because the Center is a national memorial the National Park Service provides maintenance of the building for the millions of tourists who visit the Center during the day, but we receive no government support for programming. In fact, we pay an occupancy fee to the Park Service for use of the building-estimated at $700,000 this year, which does not include our full cost of maintaining all the theaters and complex backstage facilities.
Through careful planning and aggressive booking, as well as originating our own productions, the Eisenhower Theatre has been empty for only two weeks in the approximately eight years the Center has been open. The Opera House has been empty at the most for 10 weeks during this same period of time. The Concert Hall's main occupant is the National Symphony. When the symphony is not using the hall, it is usually occupied by leading orchestras, soloists and other miscellanous musical talent, who are generally presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and other independent bookers.
The decisions as to who shall occupy the halls are made by Martin Feinstein, executive director for the performing arts, and myself. Since my experience has been largely in the theater, both legitimate and musical. I tend to concentrate on those bookings; and Martin, whose background has been in music and ballet, is responsible for those activities. We report our program plans well in advance to both the executive committee and the board of trustees. Although there are times when a decision must be made immediately in order to avoid losing a desirable booking, we try to plan as far in advance as possible in order to ensure that the halls are always filled-and yet filled with productions of the highest quality. Since we have been averaging on a year-round basis the sale of about 80 percent of the seats, which is considered excellent in theatrical circles, it is evident that we are achieving our main objective-that of pleasing the public.
A good illustration of the way Martin and I work occurred when we were in New York to see a show that had been highly praised by the critics and very successful and which we were considering bringing to the Kennedy Center. After the show, Martin said to me, "Did you like the show?" and I said, "No, did you?" and he said, "No." He said, "Shall we put it on?" and I said "Yes." I might add that there was not an empty seat for the four weeks that "A Little Night Music played at the Centr. Obviously, Feinstein and I were wrong. Other words, we try not to let our personal tastes interfere with practical booking considerations.
However, in a town like Washington where you have an extremely intelligent and perceptive audience there is always that inevitable difference opinion, depending on personal taste.We would not be human if our choices pleased all of the people all of the time. In the long run, it is always "word of mouth" which decides the success of a play. No advertising campaign can compete with spontaneous coversation: the fate of many a play has been determined by this factor long after the impact of the reviews and subscriptions has been exhausted.
An interesting example of the power of "word of mouth" occurred during the run of Tennessee Williams' play, "Outcry," in thje Eisenhower Theatre several years ago. There were many people who absolutely loathed the play, to the point of walking out in the middel. On the other hand, there were many very avid supporters of the show who were so vocal that attendance grew to the point where we had a financilly successful run here in Washington.
Elsewhere on this page is a schedule of 15 plays that have future bookings through May 1980. It is interesting to not e that of those 15, 10 were new plays, mostly by young authors. Two of them were hit in New York and one in London before they were shown here.
"The Mighty Gents" was the work of a promising black author, who we felf deserved a hearing. "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney" was done becasue of our great respect and admiration for Deborah Kerr, who was anxious to appear at the Kennedy Center last season and we agreed this would be a good vehicle for her.
"Players" marked the first time taht a new Australian had been presented in this country in 20 years. Other foreign plays were represented by the Comedie Francaise. And there was the English hit from the renowed National Theatre of Great Britain, "Bedroom Farce." During the 18-month period with which we are dealing, British plays took 11 weeks, the Comedie Francaise, 2; and the Australian play, 5-representing only about one-third of the time period devoted to non-American authors.
Under our Congressional Charter, we specifically charged, as the National Cultural Center, with presenting productions from "this and other countries."
Of all the productions listed, six were produced by the Kennedy Center and seven were brought in by outside producers. We are always more than happy to accept plays by other producers when the ocasioin warrants it. However, the necessity of having to book so far in advance often means that the time slots requested simply are not availablel, regardless of the merit of the property involved, often causing disappointment-and sometimes unkind words-among the producers turned down.
As the schedule indicates, our frture bookings in the Eisenhower indclude two plalys recently written by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, which willbe seen for the first time in this country. In order to balance the program reertoire, we are reserving three vacant slots that we are hoping to fill with new American plays worthy of a production.
Needless to say, nothing is more rewarding than to produce an exciting new play. Although I am delighted to say that recently there seem to be more young promising playwrights on the horizon, there simply are not that many outstanding new properties that are ready for a first-class professional production, which, of course, is a necessity for the Eisenhower Theatre. In the future I would hope that our Musical Theatre Lab and new Terrace Theatre would be able to provide developmental workshop and showcase opportunities for more experimental plays than we have been able to present in the past.
We do have our antenna out constantly searching for new material and talent at theater festivals and regional theaters around the country. And, what is equally important, we are continually talking to authors, directors and performers whose projects have not even yet materialized, in an effort to stay ahead of the game.
I might also point out that I read a minimum of 200 plays a year, which might include four of five readings of the same script if we are considering it for an actual production.
The Center has been in partnership with most of the well-known producers in the country, and we are frequently included in their producing plans. Having been in this business for 30 years, when something of unusual interest appears someone in its beginning stages. However, there can be barren periods when you go for a long time with nothing noteworthy coming to your attention.
I found myself in the middle of just such a desperate situation recently,and then interestingly enough, several exciting prospects suddenly sufaced at on e time. Gordon Davidson, who does a superb job running the Mark Taper Theatre in Log Angeles, called me with a very intriguing new project-a play about the famous race to the North Pole between Scott and Admunsen.
Shortly thereafter, Leslie Stevens, an author whose works I had produced during the '50s, but who has been spending most of his time lately working on films and television, sent me a new script he has written and which I feel is very promising.
At almost the same time, Tennessee Williams' agent called to say he was sending me Tennessee's latest work. It's called "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," subtilted "a ghost-play in four scences," and some of the ghosts are Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. George White, who does an excellent job developing new plays at the O'Neill Center in New London, Conn., wants to show me a new play he feels is quite extraordinary.
And most recently, Lynn Austin, a friend and colleague whose judgment I greatly respect and who has been responsible for putting on some execellint off-Broadway shows, tells me she has a very special work by George Trow to bring to my attntion.
In the Opera House, scheduling is not as difficult, because many of the dates of the engagements are made so far in advance.We know that we are going to be presenting about 18 weeks of ballet per season, scheduling that must be done at least a year ahead. There also are a certain number of weeks set aside each year for the Washington Opera. Special events such as the Vienna Opera take years of work.
We regard many of the above activities as "public service," called for in the congressiional act setting up the Kennedy Center. They usually require extra financing in terms of private subsidy through donations and it is from the presentation of musicals that we secure the funds necessary to run the Opera House.
We save time for at least four and sometimes five musical per year. Unlike ballet and opa, we never know where we stand on musical productions because they are put together sometimes only a few weeks before they arrive. The problem of finding good musical comedies is a difficult one, and the results of the last year have been very disappointing. Not only were most of last season's muscial received badly by the New York critics, but there seem to be none in the planning stage that look promising. Fortunately, in the case of musicals, one can go to an audition and get some idea of the work.
However, one may fooled by auditions. The best presentation of "Platinum" was in a small apartment in which Martin Feinstein and I were the only audience. The composers and writers put their heart and soul into what we heard. They sold us so successfully on the material that the Center made a large investment to help get the production started. But from the first performance, it seemed to go downhill in spite of an excellent performance by Alexis Smith and heroic efforts on the part of the producers. Obviouly, Gershwin's music in "Oh Kay" is sensational, but the book was so old-fashioned that, in spite of many changes, the producer was unable to make the show come alive.
Since musicals today need such a larget budget, it is not at all hard to become one of the participants in the financing. In fact, I would say practiscally every major musical being produced in this country comes to us for either a booking or funds or both. We are able to supply funds for musicals and plays through our Kennedy Center Productions, Inc. (KCPI), which is a nonprofit organization that for some reason sounds very mysterious to various investigators and critics of the Kennedy Center.
The Center itself is unable to borrow money because it is not authorized to do so, which at times is a handicap, but maybe in the long run keeps us out of trouble. However, KCPI does have a line of credit at a bank that is guaranteed in amounts up to $50,000 apiece by a dozen responsible, public-spirited individuals. We have had this revolving line of credit for the seven years that Kennedy Center Productions, Inc., has been in business, and I am happy to say that we have never had to call on any individual to put up money to repay this loan.In fact, at the moment. We are not even in debt to the bank and have some surplus funds available.
During these years, approximately $5 million has been advanced and returned to this nonprofit corporation. It is most important to point out that nay profit secured form its operation belongs-by KCPI's carter-to the Kennedy Center. The individuals who so generoulsy guarantee the loan are unable to profit in any way. I am not on the board of KCPI and cannot evenvote. The board consists mostly of members who endorse the bank notes and other citizen interested in the welfare of the Center.
I have never personally made one cent out off any production financed by KCPI.
In the case of "Death Trap," which I am coproducing but which is not a KCPI play, I told the board of trustees of the Center that before I booked it here I would promise to turn over my share of any profit or fees in Washington to the Center as a gift.
The chairman of the board, Abe Fortas, gives very generously of his time and carefully watches the operations, which is probably why we have had such on outstanding record. The only operational expense is a small auditor's fee and whatever interest we have to pay the bank. Thus, it is thanks to the generosity of a few public-spirited individuals that we are able to have a source of production funds available on call through a line of credit that in no way obligates the Center itself.
The best example of the value of KCPI is the case of "Annie." We had a seven-week booking for this show, which was about to disappear because an important investor backed out at the last moment.We had to come up with a considerable sum of money-more than $150,000-practically overnight. Thanks to KCPI, we were able to solve the financing problem; and needless to say, "Annie" will now probably enable us to finance some other "chancey" shows in the years ahead.
Audiences differ from city to city, and what is a hit in Washington might be unsuccessful in New York or Broston or vice versa. We are firm believers in the fact that quality is the name of the game and that the public will respond to quality in theater, dance, music and opera. It will be noted from the liste of plays in the box that practically every author is well known and successful, even though some of the results of their work might have been disppointing. CAPTION: Picture 1, Opera House crowd; Picture 2, Roger L. Stevens: "Our main objective is pleasing the public."; Picture 3, Feinstein and Stevens: "We try to plan as far in advance as possible in order to ensure the halls are always filled." By Linda Wheeler-The Washington Post