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Featured Non-Profit Interview: Bernard Gersten

Executive Producer, Lincoln Center Theater

Bernard GerstenAbout Bernard Gersten: Bernard Gersten has been the Executive Producer of Lincoln Center Theater (LCT) in New York since its re-establishment in 1985. When he first came aboard, LCT was in a precarious position, having gone through a number of producers and directors. Many thought LCT would fail, but with the help of Artistic Director Gregory Mosher from 1985-1992, present Artistic Director André Bishop, current Chairman Linda LeRoy Janklow, and a stellar board, LCT has not only succeeded, it thrives as "the pre-eminent theater in the country" — New York Times. According to Gersten, who continues to get the job done using the slogan, "Good plays, popular prices," it's all about chemistry. And attitude.

Learn more about Lincoln Center Theater...

Interview by George Williams, Communications Specialist, Planned Legacy 

Planned Legacy: Fifteen years ago, your attitude revived the Lincoln Center Theater (LCT). After years of failures, LCT became one of the renegades in the world of theater — because you gave the people what they wanted. Has anything changed since then?

Anything GoesBernard Gersten: Well that is very interesting because you summed it up. Whatever we had to do, we did, and if that were to be defined by an academic, the academic would say that sounds like the philosophy of a pragmatist. And as a matter of fact, it was someone from the Broadway theater who I was debating with years ago. He said, "The trouble with you is that you are just a pragmatist." I said, "Wait a minute, what kind of brush are you tarring me with? If that's the worst you can come up with to say that I am, I embrace the term."

Planned Legacy: It seems to me that if you do theater in New York you have to do it in a particular way or the establishment doesn't think you belong. Is there any truth to that? 

Bernard Gersten: No I don't think that's it. If you say that the expectation is of so called high art from a cultural institution, or the art of the upper class, which is both a class and an intellectual attitude that is anti-attitude, than yes maybe I think pragmatist is the worst charge you can make against us in terms of the philosophy of the theater. The other charge was populism; the debate about populism versus art for the high class — it's an ongoing debate. That's nothing new, even in small towns. Don't you have debates about high art? Who is the art for? Is it for the masses or is it for the aristocracy? 

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Planned Legacy
: Regardless of where a theater is located, how do they get their fair share of the arts market?

Bernard Gersten: Anybody can do it. Any enterprise that takes place, any human endeavor, always takes place within the universe within which it finds itself, in which it exists. Whether you live in New York City, San Francisco or Toronto, if you live in any large cosmopolitan center your circumstances, and I am talking sheer numbers, are that you can wrap your arms around a larger audience more readily. 

Planned Legacy: Under your guidance, LCT nailed the market. How did you figure it out?

Bernard Gersten: Nobody knew it was going to be a hit. We didn't do it with the view that it would achieve popularity. We just did it, no differently than any other organization produces a play or any individual produces a play, which is your taste in judgement, which is all you've got. You don't have the ability to look into the future — if anyone knew what was going to be popular or what was going to be a disaster they would be the richest men in history, they wouldn't do it in show business, they would put it in the market — which stocks were going to rise, which stocks were going to fall. They don't know that.

So what do you rely on? You rely on your own sensibility. You need someone whose sensibility is sympathetic or vibrates at the same rate as whoever who hires that person. LCT made the right decision in hiring artistic director Gregory (Mosher) and I. Why were they smart enough to pick us? There were four others picked before us. They all failed. They were all good guys. 

Planned Legacy: A recent report from Theater Communications Group, surveying 363 theaters, indicated that ticket sales accounted for 58 per cent of their total income, and that over the last five years, 77 of those theaters have earned more from single ticket sales than from subscriptions. LCT has been making a large portion of its income from ticket sales for many years now. Is that one of the reasons for its success?

Bernard Gersten: That wasn't an original idea. I mean you should understand the theater is unlike the other non profit performing arts such as opera, music and dance, but we do co-exist alongside these organizations. That's true in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States but in New York in particular. We run on parallel tracks with these people. Not that you are forced into making it happen for yourself, it just comes to you naturally. It's like spiders spinning webs. 

Planned Legacy: What are the key elements required to make a non-profit theater successful?

Bernard Gersten: It is different to a certain extent because we are a not a for-profit theater in New York so we have a different role. We are a theater in a city where they have got a billion theaters, you know there is a surplus of theaters. It's not only being able to make a go of it; it's basically, is the theater a good idea in that community? Remember that Darwinian Law, survival of the fit, is not only the fittest. Being fit is being well suited to the environment in which you find yourself.

Planned Legacy: Shouldn't theater be suitable in almost any environment?
A Delicate Balance
Bernard Gersten: Well, it should, but should is a crooked word. Maybe it should, but even in New York, you sometimes can't bring the elements together in the right proportions to make it work. I am trying to define what it is you have to have to make a theater successful. I have found that there are four basic elements.

You have to have a place to do what you are doing, not a building — just a place. A place to do it. You have to have artists. You have to have an audience and you have to have money. That's if you want to have a professional theater. If you want to have amateur theater, you don't have to have money but you have to sustain the souls who work at it. We're talking about professionals here. That's all you need, those four elements.

Over a long period of time, practitioners of the theater have all found their own way of recombining these four elements in their own original, differentiated way. When we succeed at it, our theaters work and when we fail to recombine the elements in a harmonious way we fail. For example, if you don't have enough money, you fail, if you don't have the audience, you fail, if you don't have enough artists, you fail, and obviously if you lose the place where you work, you fail. If you just have money, and you just have a bunch of dopey artists who aren't worth the money you are paying them, you will probably fail.

It is finding the way of combining these four simple elements. It's like taking two units of hydrogen and one of oxygen and suddenly you have a drop of water. But if you put in three oxygen and two hydrogen you get, God knows what, I don't know what you would get — H2O3, what will that be? Very wet water!

Planned Legacy: Besides ticket sales, what other forms of income does LCT use to operate? 

Bernard Gersten: We have memberships and we have an endowment. We don't sell subscriptions and we aren't selling more memberships now. It's not that we don't accept any new memberships; it's just that our membership rolls are full. We are limited by the capacity of our theaters, in other words, we can't have an infinite number of members because we do the plays for periods of time and we have finite seating. What we have to reconcile is one theater with 1000 seats and one theater with 300 seats. We have 1000 seats for every performance. We normally produce a play for 10 weeks, so that gives us a rack of 80,000 tickets. We have 40,000 members and the members get first choice.

Our theater over an 18 year period, has averaged somewhere between 65 and 70 per cent earned income which is ticket sales. Our ratio of earned to contributed income tends to be somewhere between 55-70 per cent to 30-35 per cent.

Planned Legacy: Do you run fundraisers during the year?

Bernard Gersten: We do it all. People say to me, "What percentage of your time is spent on fundraising?" My answer is, "I don't spend any time. And I don't spend any time breathing." Think about it. How much time do you spend breathing, 24 hrs a day? I breathe all the time but I don't spend any time doing it. I raise money all the time but I don't spend any time doing it. It's as constant as breathing. When I sleep, I'm fundraising, I'm dreaming up schemes.

Planned Legacy: Under the leadership of Chairman Linda LeRoy Janklow, Artistic Director André Bishop and yourself, Lincoln Center Theater was named "the pre-eminent theater in the country" — New York Times. What exactly does that mean?

Bernard Gersten: You mean, are we the best theater in the world? Well, they said it one week; it's nothing you can put in the bank. They said, and I am looking at a quote, "It's a bona fide Broadway powerhouse having earned 11 nominations yesterday with a three-production stage on Broadway this season." That was written about three or four ago, but I have it on my wall anyway. 

Planned Legacy: Is LCT a true Broadway theater?

Bernard Gersten: The Beaumont is a Broadway theater. What defines a Broadway theater is eligibility for Tony Awards. Kind of dopey but you would think that a Broadway theater is a theater located on Broadway but there are only three of them on Broadway of the 35 or so we've got. Most of them are on 44th or 45th St. 

Planned Legacy: LCT shows are often packed or sold out. Do you think this is a result of your reputation for doing good work?

Bernard Gersten: No. No one comes because you have a reputation for being good, or maybe only a small number of people. Think about yourself, do you go to a show at a theater because you think something's good there or do you go because that show has caught your attention. Maybe it is a combination of both. I think we do have a reputation for doing good work and certainly, our members come because they like the work that we do. So that if they renew at a very high rate every year it's partly because it is a very price-attractive offer and because they esteem the work and so I think it is a combination of both. It takes a lot of work to build that type of reputation.

Planned Legacy: How important is it to have celebrities in your plays?

Bernard Gersten: We have stars of different degrees of magnitude from time to time but we are not focused on that. The principle is that we don't cast stars because they are stars, but we don't NOT cast stars because they are stars. Do you follow me? In other words, we try to get the best actor who is available to us at the time we need them. We are not star-driven, but we are not star-resistant.

Planned Legacy: Do you have a family of artists?

Bernard Gersten: No we don't. One day you are doing a play that requires 20 of the best dancers in town and the next day you are doing a play that needs actors who can act Chekhov.

Planned Legacy: How important is it to have a person to bring all these people together?

Bernard Gersten: Those are the directors of the play. Everything is extremely important. It would really be nice if you could say, this is the order of importance and we could describe a value to each element, but it's too much trouble. You just take the four items, recombine them, scratch your head a lot and say, "Now what should we do that would make it work for us." It's like a laboratory, different colored powders, your pouring them from one test tube to another and saying, "Oh look we got a Frankenstein."

Planned Legacy: In all your years in the theater, what has surprised you the most? 

Bernard Gersten: Hair, the production of Hair. I thought it was a disaster. At the dress rehearsal I thought, "Oh we're not going to open, this is a disaster."

And it worked. You know, you can't always define things in terms of do they sell, and you have to avoid that. It's something you should fight. That's not a criticism. You mustn't ask, "Was it selling?" You must say, "Was it really good?" And it was pretty good, but actually, it didn't have success until we had given up our rights to it. It was abandoned; nobody thought it would go anywhere. Then somebody else produced it and introduced nudity. Suddenly the new production had frontal female and male nudity and that got a lot of attention way back then. That was first time in memory on a Broadway stage that you could see either a penis or a vagina.

Planned Legacy: I've never seen a play with a naked person.

Bernard Gersten: You haven't? Well if you come to New York, we can send you to a few. I saw one coming to New York shortly, which is about a baseball team called, "Take Me Out" and the out refers to outing as in homosexuals coming out. Anyway it's about a baseball player who comes out and there are a couple of scenes in the shower room of the whole team taking showers, frontways, backways and bent over.

Planned Legacy: That's risky isn't it?

Bernard Gersten: In what way? It's not even risky anymore, not in New York.

Planned Legacy: You had a show that was supposed to run for 10 weeks and you ended up running it for over a year. Many theaters schedule a show for a certain period of time and then it ends, even if it is wildly successful. Why do some theaters do that?

Bernard Gersten: That was called pragmatism. When we do a show, we don't think we are obligated to inhibit the people by closing the show. I don't know why some theaters would end a successful show. They are out of their minds, I don't know why. It's just bloody hopeless. They just don't understand the first thing in the world. Many theaters are subscription theaters; they only have their own theater to work with and very often they book their theaters for the show for a finite month and whether the show does well or does poorly, the next show is coming along the pike to replace the prior show.

And they have obligations and they have to close the show. They don't think. They are not as flexible as we are. We're not a subscription theater so we never have to do that. Although we schedule shows one after another, we attempt to attain flexibility so that we can either keep a show running, or rent a theater on Broadway, or rent a theater off Broadway and move it there and keep it going. The hardest thing to achieve in the theater is getting people to want to see a show and when you achieve that, you're loath to give it up. It's also a way of making money.

Planned Legacy: What is the difference between subscription and membership?

Bernard Gersten: Well, subscribers agree to buy tickets in advance for a number of plays, all scheduled, and they get their tickets and they know when they are going and they know where they are sitting and they know what they are going to see. We say, "Hey folks be a member, it's only close to 35 bucks and every time we put on a play we will write you a letter and tell you what is going to be on, and then you can come and get tickets if you want to and if you don't want to, you don't have to."

Planned Legacy: If memberships are only $35 would a subscription be a lot more money?

Bernard Gersten: Well, a subscription, an average ticket for a show in New York is 60-65 bucks, so if you were to buy a subscription to four plays, that's around 240 bucks. Most of the theaters across the country are subscription theaters, a small number are member theaters. A membership can bring you much greater flexibility. The public theater has a membership mainly and there are some across the country. But you see it doesn't give you the security because we don't know that our audience will come. Everybody says they are going to produce good stuff. Just because you say you are going to do it, doesn't mean you are going to do it. You have to think of us as scientists in little white coats in our laboratories taking these four vials and mixing them up together. It is about chemistry and that is why I use that image.

Planned Legacy: How will the recent collapse of Enron and other companies, occurring as it has in the aftermath of 9/11, affect the theater?

Bernard Gersten: If you just sit around and say we are not going to be able to achieve what we hope to do until the market turns up or until the threat of war has gone away — you just get the world that is served up to you. The world that we ourselves are in part responsible for having made and for not having evolved to a higher level of humanity yet. Basically, just get out there, grab it by the shoulders and shake it. Nobody is interested in whining.

We have been having all this since the Greeks. The events of violence have been going on since….not a day goes by, not a year goes by, not a period goes by, not a decade goes by, without a series of calamities — disasters, threats, wars …all these. I don't want to seem like a 2000-year-old man played by Mel Brooks, but the fact of the matter is that the theater has been around now for 7000 years and despite the tumultuous changes that have taken place, the species is very young.

The theater has sustained itself for quite a period of time and in the species, in history, in our ability. From the time a bunch of us first gathered around a fire and a couple of fellows stood up in front and said, "Hey watch me! I'm gonna beat a drum. I'm gonna jump up and down. I'm gonna tell stories." Even then, we elaborated. Those people sitting around the fire — if the story was not interesting and the jumping up and down was not exciting, they would sneak off and say to their girlfriends, "Hey, let's go to the cave."

Planned Legacy: So what you are saying is that the theater has survived everything?

Bernard Gersten: Yes, but so has the species. There is a link between the species and the theater that has made the theater integral to their lives. I don't mean the world at large, it's a small number of people who go to the theater, or even consider it. We are comfortably thinking of a getting a larger group involved and getting them to come.

Planned Legacy: So everybody in your company, would they think the same way you do?

Bernard Gersten: No. Why would they? Everybody has a different opinion. I think we are unified as a company. It's something you don't even have to talk about, like getting up and brushing your teeth or getting up and having a cup of coffee, whatever you do, you do these things until they are native to your life. You know, they are natural to your life and you don't have to really think about it. It's not that before you go to bed, you say, "Please God give us an audience," and upon rising the next morning you say "Please God make our next play a hit." You work at it.

Planned Legacy: In a previous interview you said mission statements were counter-productive. Why is that?

Bernard Gersten: We said look, every theater really has the same mission statement. We just said, "Good plays, popular prices." We don't have such popular prices, we just…you know I want to be a good person, you want to be a decent person, and it's something you aspire to. You aspire to do your plays well but everybody does. Sometimes people say a billion words and a lot of it is not quite credible.

Planned Legacy: Your prices are lower than some theaters aren't they? 

Bernard Gersten: Yeah, they are, $32 dollars is an average ticket price. Today a ticket would cost you $90 at this theater. It's just the price has crept over the years. That ticket, if it wasAnything Goes, was $45 dollars 15 years ago. But there are a lot of discounts, marketing schemes — you know everybody doesn't pay $90 dollars, but it's for somebody who buys retail. The average price of a ticket for a Lincoln Center Theater performance is still around $32 and the membership program allows 40,000 participants to see any production at the theater for just $35 per play from the best seats available.

Planned Legacy: How would you describe what it takes to make theater "happen" successfully? 

Bernard Gersten: It's like a trapeze act — and at the very heart of what we do is trust. If the theater wins the trust of the artists then we will have succeeded. In a trapeze act you have two kinds of participants, the flyers and the catchers. In the theater the producer is the catcher, and the artists are the flyers. The key thing in the relationship between the flyer and the catcher is the ability of the catcher. That is what persuades the flyer to leave the security and safety of the platform. The flyer lets go and flies through the air on the assumption that the catcher will be at exactly the place where the catcher has to be when the flyer arrives there. Now if you were a flyer and you couldn't count on your catcher, would you fly?

The point is, what a producer does is provides the circumstances in which the flyers, who are the artists of the theater, can take the chances that they have to take. That's a very risky business. If you write a play, inevitably it reveals some of yourself or a lot of yourself. People can come in and throw vegetables at you or if they are critics they can write really ugly stuff about you — they don't literally throw vegetables — they go to sleep, or they snore, or they don't applaud or they don't say you are brilliant. Whatever it is, they don't praise you.

They trust the catcher to do all of the things that are necessary to assure the success of the play. Artists are paid like workers. Artists are salaried workers. Except for certain creative artists like playwrights, directors and the designers who receive royalties — they get paid an additional fee for the work they perform and then they participate in the proceeds — if the play does better, they get more money, if the play does poorly, they get less — the playwrights, directors and designers.

Planned Legacy: You have a program on your Web site, Open Stages, which introduces theater to 1000s of public school children every year. Was this designed with future markets in mind?

Bernard Gersten: No. I don't think so. I think that is part of a movement more or less that takes place in the United States to restore arts education to the schools, undertaken not by the education establishment but by the arts establishment. It's not done out of a simple self-based interest saying, "Oh we have to create the audience of the future so we are going to get these kids when they are young." It's not that really; because the theater or the arts intend to be, desire to be, genuine, inherent and credible. There is a democratic desire to make the arts available to a larger swath of the population. We all kind of learn from each other, that we have more to do than just put on our plays for our regular audiences. We take unto ourselves an educational mission to try to raise the funds, to staff up to do this — it's something we believe in …it's a shared belief.

A Man of No ImportancePlanned Legacy: Do you have anything more you want to say?

Bernard Gersten: Everything I've said is what I want to say. The future is ahead of us. We have a new play coming up, it is in rehearsal as we speak — a musical called A Man of No Importance based on a film by the same name that was produced in Ireland about 10 or 15 years ago — a lovely play. It's about an Irish bus conductor who is a secret homosexual man who leads an amateur church theatrical group. And the church gets upset because he is producing a play by Oscar Wilde, and they threaten him and the troupe because they find the play immoral.

About Lincoln Center Theater 

The Lincoln Center Theater

Lincoln Center Theater was re-established in 1985 under the leadership of Chairman John V. Lindsay, Director Gregory Mosher and Executive Producer Bernard Gersten. Since that time, the organization has produced dozens of plays and musicals, seen by millions of audience members at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, and other venues.

Lincoln Center Theater productions have received many of the highest accolades including: 34 Tony Awards and 136 nominations; 45 Drama Desk Awards and 175 nominations; 26 Outer Critics Circle Awards and 77 nominations; 13 Obie Awards; and 6 NY Drama Critics Circle prizes.

The organization observes Lincoln Center founder John D. Rockefeller III's mandate that "the arts not for the privileged few, but for the many." Guided by the motto, "Good plays, popular prices," Lincoln Center Theater makes every effort to keep admission prices low and its doors open to all. The average price of a ticket for a Lincoln Center Theater performance is around $32 and it now has over 40,000 participants in its membership program, which is now full. This program allows members to see any production at the Theater for just $35 per play from the best seats available.

Lincoln Center Theater also distributes thousands of free tickets each year to culturally under-served populations throughout the five boroughs and regularly offers special performances for the hearing impaired. Other ongoing activities include the Playwrights Program, a new play workshop and reading series; the Directors Lab, a developmental symposium for new and emerging artists; Open Stages, an arts-in-education program operated in cooperation with New York City public schools; Lincoln Center Theater Review, a literary journal available in the Theater's lobbies and distributed free-of-charge to schools and libraries, and the Platform Series of free conversations with LCT artists.

Today, under the leadership of Chairman Linda LeRoy Janklow, Artistic Director André Bishop and Executive Producer Bernard Gersten, Lincoln Center Theater has been named "the pre-eminent theater in the country" — New York Times. Indeed, through tours, telecasts, films, publications recordings, and their excellent Web site, the organization reaches audiences across the nation and around the world.

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