Other than possibly a simple cup of coffee, the one thing in shortest supply during the Orange County Performing Arts Center's inaugural Year of Abundance has been the empty seat.
Audiences snapped up tickets to everything from the New York City Ballet and the Chicago Symphony to Patti Page and "Cabaret" with such speed that the question of what to do with unsold tickets has prompted about as much concern as what the federal government might do with a budget surplus.
But that luxury is starting to erode as the public's sheer curiosity about the Center is satiated and audiences get choosier about what they buy, consequently forcing presenters to work harder at filling those plush red seats.
The first sign that the attendance cup won't always runneth over in Segerstrom Hall came during last month's two-week run of the musical "Big River." Although first-week attendance was at or near capacity from subscription ticket sales, significant numbers of seats were empty for the second week's shows, which were sold on an individual ticket basis.
After otherwise enjoying "Big River," one reader wrote in to lament the vacant seats she noticed.
"Why not give those empty seats to senior citizens who deserve a break living on Social Security?" asked Patricia Frostholm of Fullerton. "One call to a senior citizens' center would cause a lot of happiness and entertainment for an appreciative audience."
What an exquisitely straightforward and, seemingly, win-win solution to a situation that will be increasingly common as the Center shifts into a business-as-usual mode.
Distributing unsold tickets to disadvantaged arts lovers--old and young--whose disposable incomes go to food, rent and medical expenses would give them a chance to experience the Center that they might never otherwise get. It would also benefit performers by providing larger, more enthusiastic crowds. And the Center would better fulfill its promise to provide cultural arts for all Orange County residents, not just the well-heeled donors who helped build the place.
Center spokesman Richard Bryant said that because there have been so few empty seats during first-year events, no formal policy on distributing unsold tickets has been established.
"It's too early for us to tell exactly what is going to happen from one performance to the next. We're not ready to say what we'll do with (unsold tickets)," Bryant said this week.
The Center did offer "student rush" tickets for $5 each to some of the Joffrey Ballet's September performances, which is not only a good PR move but a self-perpetuating one. Young people--read "future audiences"--need far more enticement to attend the ballet or symphony than to buy tickets for the next Motley Crue concert at the Pacific or Irvine Meadows amphitheaters.
And who knows? Once lured in, they might even like it. One fourth-grader neatly summed up the Joffrey's educational program for county school children: "Most (of) the time the ballets are so boring they could put you to sleep. But not yours."
Bryant also said that a senior-citizen discount program "has been in effect (at the Center) for the entire year on an 'as-available' basis. But until the last couple of weeks, there simply haven't been any tickets available."
Such organizations as the Los Angeles Philharmonic make it a practice to provide complimentary tickets to community groups when it becomes apparent that a given performance won't be a sellout.
"It's a hot topic," L.A. Philharmonic marketing director John Toohey said: "Naturally, I'd be happier if every performance was sold out. But a week or two before a concert if we project that we're going to have several hundred (unsold) seats, we begin calling community organizations, senior citizens' homes and school music departments and offer them complimentary tickets.
"When we give away tickets, we try to accomplish a couple of objectives: We want to make these tickets available to those who would not afford them otherwise. And we would like them to go to people who are going to enjoy themselves.
"It's also a way for us to broaden the public's awareness of us, so down the road if they like it and remember it, they might come in again or recommend it to somebody else," he said.
This assumes, of course, that recipients of complimentary tickets will like what they attend. Or, at least, if they find fault with some violinist's hemidemisemiquavers, they'll be tactful enough to keep it to themselves.