A Life in the Theatre: Victoria Bailey

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Victoria Bailey
 
TDF executive director Victoria Bailey worked her way through the business side of theatre to become an advocate for audiences.
Victoria Bailey
Victoria Bailey Photo by Joan Marcus

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"What I love about the theatre," Victoria Bailey says, "is that it's an experience unique to the moment. Artists are telling a story. People are sitting in the dark, watching and listening. And it's something no one else is ever going to experience in exactly the same way again. It's just you and them, and it's only that night, that performance. It can be life changing, or it can just be entertaining, and make a couple of hours pass more quickly. Either way, for me it has always been magic."

Bailey (who is known to just about everyone in New York theatre as Tory) has spent more than a quarter-century propagating that magic. These days she is the executive director of Theatre Development Fund, the nonprofit organization behind the TKTS Discount Theatre Centers in Times Square and at the South Street Seaport.

Bailey joined TDF six years ago. Before that, she was general manager of Manhattan Theatre Club, one of New York's renowned nonprofit Off-Broadway (and now also Broadway) stage companies, where she had a major role in the production of nearly 200 plays, including many commercial transfers. But her interest in and love for theatre goes back much further.

She grew up in Washington (her father was the D.C. correspondent for the Minneapolis Tribune), but her first stage experience came, at age 4, when her grandfather, an English professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, took her to see "at least part of A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. "There was concern that I was too young," she recalls, "but he said I would like the Mechanicals [the comedic characters who put on the play-within-the-play]. And he was right." And, she remembers, she fell in love. In public school in Washington, she would go with her classmates to productions at Arena Stage and the Washington Theatre Club, and at age ten she began taking performance classes. "I was sure for a while that I wanted to be an actor. Everyone wants to be an actor." Her first Broadway show was Hello, Dolly!, starring Pearl Bailey, in the mid-1960's.

In high school in Minneapolis, where her family had moved, she studied acting, dance and music. "Then it was time to go to college. And a couple of conservatories helped me understand that I did not have a career ahead of me as an actor. I wasn't good enough."

But that decision didn't stop her. She went to Yale, where her prime extracurricular activity was theatre. "I stage-managed. There was never any doubt that I would do anything else but theatre. I was surrounded by people planning to go to business school or law school, but I just assumed I would work in the theatre. I didn't really understand anything else."

After college, and a year in Manhattan, she got a job at the Yale Repertory Theatre. For two years she was box office treasurer and group sales manager. "It was Lloyd Richards's first two years as head of the school, and there was a lot of conversation about audiences, who they were, and how to bring the students in to the theatre. It made me a big believer in the idea that if you want to go into producing you have to first sell tickets. It makes you begin to think about the audience."

From Yale Rep, she went straight to the business office of Manhattan Theatre Club. She stayed at MTC for 19 years, the last 15 of them as the company's general manager. "I left before MTC took over the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, but I was there when it went from being just a subscription theatre to self-producing extensions of its own work when the show warranted it. So I was trained to think about subscribers, and also about when a show has to run on its own in a commercial model. I've lived at both ends of the spectrum of producing in New York."

And, she says, "there were a lot of new plays. I believe in new plays, and in supporting new writers."

Which, of course, is one of her roles at TDF. "I think a lot about building audiences, because the need is still there, in some ways more than ever," Bailey says. "I like to think about TDF, and myself, as supporting the theatre by being an advocate for the audience."

TDF's many other services include mailing and voucher programs that offer reduced-price tickets for millions of New Yorkers and tourists; sign-interpreted and open-captioned performances for the deaf; and arts-education programs that provide theatre experiences and tickets for students.

One of her favorite images of TDF's role involves the multiplicity of its offerings.

"It's a Wednesday matinee in late fall," she says. "Because of our education programs, students who have never been in a theatre are sitting and watching a show, and TDF has helped them prepare for the experience. Children who are deaf or hard of hearing are also experiencing a show, something many have never experienced before. TDF members who can't afford full-price seats are in the theatres because of our discount vouchers. And tourists and other New Yorkers who have stood in line at the TKTS booths are watching plays and musicals, some of them also for the first time — about 30 percent of buyers at the booths are seeing their first Broadway show."

What's in her future — and TDF's? Well, she says, the Times Square booth is temporarily at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on West 46th Street while a new booth, expected to open this summer, is being constructed for a remodeled Duffy Square at Broadway and 47th. The new booth will have more windows and advanced technology, she says, but it will also become something new. Because the new Duffy Square will be "a gathering place," Bailey says, it may be possible to "get people to go to the theatre who don't know they want to go.

"A lot of people may just go to the square to sit and have a picnic lunch. And maybe the second or third time they are sitting there they will see people buying tickets and say, 'You know, we should try this.'"

Yes, Tory Bailey really does love her job: "I love knowing that we're making it possible for people to experience something that is essential and joyous. I'm very proud of the service we provide for tourists — and I'm deeply moved by what we do for New Yorkers."

Recently, she says, she received a letter from an 84-year-old woman in New York who had been a TDF member for 30 years. "She couldn't come to the theatre anymore," Bailey says. "But she sent us $20 because we had enabled her, for so many years, to go to the theatre."

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