Late last month, the Wesleyan student theater scene was overwhelmed with attention for the 20th anniversary production of “In the Heights.” Each night of the three-show weekend was sold out; students even lined up outside of the Wednesday night dress rehearsal, desperately hoping to secure a spot in the audience. By the end of the production weekend, Second Stage had expanded the ’92 Theater house count to accommodate even more audience members, yet tickets online still sold out in less than 30 seconds.
While this isn’t the first time that students have struggled to get tickets for a Second Stage production, “In The Heights” strikes a different controversy. It wasn’t just Second Stage’s biggest musical of the season; the show was cast of entirely students of color, with many actors who were new to the Wesleyan theater scene.
“Those students who I attempted to represent in the cast (being POC, coming from a family of immigrants, surviving in a low-income community targeted by gentrification & raising rent, etc.) weren’t able to get tickets due to fast sellouts,” Milton Espinoza Jr. ’22, the director of “In The Heights,” wrote in a message to The Argus.
With the way that Second Stage ticketing currently functions, neither Second Stage nor the “In The Heights” creative team had any jurisdiction over who could get tickets online.
“Once [the tickets] go live we have no power over them,” Thea LaCrosse ’21, a Second Stage staff member, wrote in an email to The Argus. “We create the ticket link and then we run the waitlist. That is our involvement. We cannot change or delete tickets on Eventbrite even if people ask us. Second Stage is all about safety so we cannot let everyone into the show because in the case of emergency no one would be able to get out. We have to put people’s safety first, even if it means fewer people get to see shows.”
In an attempt to get a more diverse audience for the performances, Espinoza and his production team asked white students to consider giving up their tickets or taking their names off the waitlist. Other productions telling POC stories have used similar tactics in the past, including “Let’s Talk About Sex” last January and “Appropriate” in May.
“Other majority POC productions have encouraged white audience members to wait before getting an Eventbrite ticket to let POC have a chance to see the shows,” Max Halperin ’20, a Second Stage staff member, wrote in an email to The Argus. “Last year I introduced and passed a policy to Second Stage staff that allows productions to deviate from our ticketing system to prioritize historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups. During [“In The Heights”], we took advantage of this policy and allowed the team to have more control over the waitlist and prioritize non-white audience members.”
Even with this effort, Espinoza still noted that many of the “In the Heights” audiences remained overwhelmingly white. This reflects a ticketing system that offers tickets to all students in the same way, rather than specifically prioritizing certain groups.
In attempts to reform their ticketing process, Second Stage has made numerous changes to their system over the past few years. In the 2016-2017 academic year, Second Stage still offered tickets through the University box office. In order to get a ticket, students had to come and physically pick up a ticket from the stack at the box office.
This system avoided the limitations of online ticketing—which requires access to a device and fast WiFi—yet was inaccessible for students who couldn’t physically get to the box office at the ticket sale time, whether they had class, work, or a prior commitment.
The next year, however, Second Stage made the switch to Eventbrite, an online ticketing platform. The change made ticketing paperless and allowed students to get their tickets from anywhere on campus, without having to physically show up to reserve their spot. Tickets were made available through the production’s Facebook event page and the Second Stage website.
While the organization remains faithful to Eventbrite, the ticketing release system has gone through many iterations to try and respond to student frustrations about securing tickets. Second Stage has tried releasing all tickets for all performances on the same day, releasing at midnight of each day, and releasing at 12:15 p.m. on each day. Currently, the system releases tickets for each performance twice each day, once at 12:15 p.m. and once two hours before the performance.
Despite these changes and attempts to reform the system, securing ticketing for Second Stage shows remains increasingly difficult.
“Ticketing issues have historically plagued the Wesleyan Theater community,” Halperin said. “In fact, this semester has been the calmest in terms of ticketing fiascos in my experience with Second Stage. There are rarely enough tickets. We offer productions either three or four performances, but we can’t make them do more shows than they want, and sometimes four performances aren’t enough to give everyone who wants to see it a ticket.”
Students came forward to offer multiple solutions to the ticketing problem. One idea proposed that offering both box office and Eventbrite ticketing options may help give alternative opportunities to secure tickets. Chris Jackson ’20, who worked selling Second Stage ticketing in the box office his first year, wondered if production teams like those of “In The Heights” could table their tickets to POC students during the week of the show, then offer a smaller portion of the remaining tickets online to whoever wanted them.
“‘In the Heights’ was a show specifically done to give POC sort of this space—to take up this space at Wesleyan in the theater community that isn’t really given to people of color,” Jackson said. “I feel like they understand that the act of taking space from a predominantly white institution is something that has to be constantly and aggressively done.”
David Vizgan ’21, who has music directed and conducted pits for Second Stage shows, suggested a ranking system in which students rank the shows they want to see that semester. This would serve as a means to get data on student interest before shows are assigned their performance spaces, in hopes of avoiding putting bigger musicals in smaller campus spaces.
However, “In The Heights” was performed in the organization’s largest performance space, the ’92 Theater, and the production still sold out every night. The ’92 Theater has a house count of around 120, which Second Stage even expanded for Espinoza’s show, allowing students from the waitlist to sit on the floor. The total house count ended up being 141.
Many of the “In The Heights” seats were already pre-filled by ticket reserves—tickets that students from the creative and production team reserve for family members, professors, and friends not from Wesleyan. Because they’re reserved before the show’s production weekend, these individuals are guaranteed a spot in the house. The number of tickets Second Stage puts on Eventbrite takes these reserves into account.
“We take the house count of the show—the number of seats—and subtract the number of reservations from members of the team for themselves, friends, family, and guests,” Halperin wrote. “We also take out five emergency tickets for last minute adds, as well as four tickets for two house managers and two ushers. The rest of these tickets go live on Eventbrite.”
One of the reasons “In The Heights” tickets went so quickly is because the show had so many pre-reserved seats. In fact, the Saturday performance had so many reserves that no tickets were available through Eventbrite for that performance date—students only had the option to go to the waitlist. On other dates, there were only a handful of Eventbrite tickets available, causing them to sell out quickly, even in less than 15 seconds.
“The reason tickets were going so fast is that—much like Legally Blonde last year—when a big musical has a cast of 15 or more people, the majority of the tickets are used up from reserved tickets,” LaCrosse said. “People were up in arms about Saturday being waitlist only and were taking this out on Second Stage. What people didn’t realize is that Saturday was waitlist only because almost every member of the cast and crew had family coming in, some from other countries. These people are automatically given priority over Wesleyan students.”
With reserves or not, even student theater’s biggest campus performance space couldn’t hold all of the students who tried to get tickets on Eventbrite. Other spaces on campus that the organization has used in the past—such as WestCo Café or the Alpha Delta Phi Greene Room—are even smaller.
“I think the largest issue…is that we don’t have a space that houses as many people who want to support our theater,” Elijah Comas ’22, the director of Second Stage’s first production of the season, said. “If more spaces are thought of as theater spaces, the idea that the theater community is a discreet community [can be] broken down…. I think if we begin to think about it in that way it [makes] theater on this campus accessible in really positive ways.”
Until there’s not only enough space to house the number of people who wish to see student theater, but also ways to prioritize the marginalized groups that production teams want in the audience, frustrations and disappointment with ticketing will, no doubt, continue.
“I directed this show with the intention of bringing this story to the POC community because we don’t see enough of us on stage,” Espinoza said. “It was a POC show for POC! I just wish we could’ve had more space for people like Nina or Daniela or Usnavi [the main characters of ‘In the Heights’] in the audience.”
Zoeë Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.