In the beginning, there was a play. Well, a worry about a play—specifically “the health and well-being of the well-made play on Broadway,” according to TDF Executive Director Victoria Bailey.
The organization known today as TDF, previously the Theatre Development Fund, began in 1968 with the mission to cultivate a Broadway environment where the play was still the thing. “[The founders] would’ve hoped that there would always be good, strong plays—good stories told well,” Bailey, who has led TDF since 2001, continues. “They were not interested in saving the world for Hello, Dolly!, which doesn’t mean they diminished or dismissed it. [They wanted to know] ‘What did you need to do to make sure serious drama and discourse was happening?’”
The simple answer: make sure people see the “serious dramas.” So they bought tickets and gave them to people. “Their idea was that they would raise money to buy tickets to worthy plays (and Harold Clurman was the determiner of the worthy plays),” says Bailey, “and they would then give those tickets to teachers, to students, to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.”
With money from the Rockefeller Foundation, TDF bought up tickets to The Great White Hope and gave them away for free. Of course, the founders quickly realized the lack of sustainability in this model; the key to longevity would be to acquire tickets at a discount and resell them. In 1970, TDF tested a small summer experiment: the TKTS Booth.
No one knew if there would be interest in lining up for theatre tickets in the seedy district. But on its second day (a rainy matinée Wednesday), “they came around the corner and all they could see was umbrellas,” Bailey says. “From the beginning [the Booth] did what it was supposed to do. That provided identity, it provided net revenue to pay the rent and then begin the rest of the programs. Had it not been for the Booth, we probably would not have become the organization that we’ve become.”
A Sign of the Times: 1968
As TDF celebrates its 50th anniversary, it joins the ranks of institutions like the Public Theater, Classic Stage Company, Roundabout Theatre Company, Center Theatre Group, all of which celebrated 50 years within the last 24 months—speaking to a cultural moment when respect for and preservation of the arts became a priority.
“The Kennedys came in and there was an emphasis on culture and a cultural conversation again,” says Bailey. “And Jackie Kennedy made the artists glamorous.” The 20th Century Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation actively investigated ways to support the arts—and Broadway was fertile ground to sow.
Of course, in 1968 there was no Off-Broadway; TDF fulfilled its mission by specifically building Broadway audiences. For a nominal annual fee, TDF membership afforded and continues to afford inexpensive tickets (from $9–$49) to shows in advance. (Find out how to become a TDF member today.)
Today, Broadway remains the starting point for the organization’s initiatives, but as Broadway theatres house longer-running hits with less turnover Bailey recognizes “our ‘textbook’ will have to change moving forward. You’re talking a lot more about [ticket offers for] Off-Broadway, music, dance.
“If our mission is to build audiences and help strengthen the theatre by building audiences” it only makes sense to expand those offerings.
What Helps Audiences, Helps the Theatre
The building of the Booth in 1973 stuck a proverbial stake in the ground, making Broadway accessible financially. With each new initiative (funded in part by $5 Booth ticket fees and membership dues), TDF has made the theatre accessible from a distinct standpoint: physical, intellectual, emotional, and geographic. Impartial to any one show or one sector of the industry, its only interest is in the theatre writ large by way of the people in the seats. TDF is the people’s organization.
“It’s about responding to populations,” says TDF’s Director of Communications David LeShay, who has been with the nonprofit for 25 years. “There was a period of time where, if you came to TDF and asked ‘Would you like to do this for us,’ we would say yes,” Bailey adds. “That’s how we got the Costume Collection”—referring to the Queens warehouse of living history, where Broadway and Off-Broadway shows can donate costumes at the end of a run, and other productions (from regional to high school) can rent quality, authentic dressing at an affordable price. Still, for all its weight in legacy, the Costume Collection is not exactly an audience-builder.
Now, TDF selects and creates its programming more judiciously. “The impulse comes when you see the need,” says Bailey. “Then you have to ask yourself: Noble or not, worthy or not, is it on mission?”
The TDF Accessibility Programs (TAP), started in 1979, fulfilled both criteria. It began with a push to make theatres physically accessible to ticketholders in wheelchairs, or who couldn’t climb stairs. “This was before ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990],” says Bailey. “It happened because someone picked up the phone and said, ‘I want to go to the theatre and I can’t climb stairs.’”
TAP has extended beyond stipulations addressing mobility needs. From coordinating interpreted and open-caption performances for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences to innovations with audio description for blind and low vision ticket buyers to school matinées catered to students with these needs, TDF has established itself as the catchall to raze any blockade that prevents existing theatre-lovers from attending performances. They get things done. More than that, TDF is in the business of creating theatregoers.
Cultivation Through Education
“What makes any of us go to the theatre is, in large part, if we go as kids,” says Bailey. TDF sparks a passion for the performing arts through teaching, manifesting the idea that “theatre is for me.”
The Introduction to Theatre Program, which still brings New York City public school students to Broadway as part of their curriculum, was the baby step in 1995—exposing kids to performance; the Young Playwrights program a bigger step—encouraging writing and creativity outside the four walls of a theatre. But the Open Doors program, renamed this year the Wasserstein Project for its founder, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, was a gamechanger.
“When the Wasserstein Project started it was one group of eight kids and by the time I got to TDF it was six or seven groups of eight kids and it was our first big funding application for the program,” says Bailey. “Now, it’s 25 groups a year and it’s 2,700 alumni out of the program.”
But TDF knows it’s not enough to send students to free theatre; you have to make it possible to integrate theatre as a practice—which is why they gift free memberships (plus a $100 credit) to alumni. The Wasserstein Project is not an empty promise, it’s audience retention.
Not only do those alumni become the young professional theatregoers for whom producers clamor, these graduates impart their love of theatre to the next generation. “We’ve opened doors for [Wasserstein] alums that are now teachers in New York City high schools, who are bringing their kids into the Stage Doors Program because they got it in the first place,” Bailey boasts of the tangible results. So successful is the Wasserstein Project, it earned a Tony Honor for Excellence in 2012.
A Family Affair
But it’s not just individuals. A recent TDF study revealed that 90 percent of theatregoers say Broadway is special because it is a source of fond memories and family bonding. TDF (accidentally on purpose) found a way to develop audiences family by family with the launch of autism-friendly performances.
As with any of their programs, TDF responded to a call—this time a more public outcry. “There was an incident in London, about ten years ago,” Bailey recalls. “The kid got agitated and verbal and they were told they had to leave; there was a lot of outrage.”
Lisa Carling, TDF’s Director of Accessibility Programs, immediately began wondering how they could help kids on the autism spectrum—kids who often display sensory sensitivities, who cannot sit still for long periods of time, who may speak or shout unexpectedly—visit Broadway?
The solution—and one of TDF’s most well-known programs—are the relaxed autism-friendly performances, which tend to their physical and emotional needs. (Read more about the Autism Theatre Initiative here.)
“This is a very neglected audience,” Carling says. But what TDF had not realized, was that the families with children on the spectrum had been neglected, too. “[But] no one was going to the theatre in the family because you couldn’t,” says Bailey.
Now, as one mother says, “It is as if I am able to take my son on an outing that a ‘typical’ family would enjoy because the playing field is leveled for him.” She specifically cherishes the chance to “make memories with my son that will last a lifetime.” And that family will remember theatre gave that to them.
The initiative created an opportunity for theatre in kids with disabilities, but also for their siblings and parents who, Bailey hopes, will continue to be lifelong fans.
The relaxed performances led to another unpredicted result: families with children with disabilities independently attend regular performances on Broadway. The autism-friendly performances presented the circumstances to help children understand the routine of visiting the theatre and what to expect. “There are a lot of young people who needs the supports of being able to leave, who need the house lights not to go out,” Bailey. “We’re introducing a group of people to the theatre who then might be able to go on their own.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Reflecting on the five decades of TDF history, about every seven years the organization undertakes a new segment of theatre access, while continually mining its existing branches. Next up: making theatre accessible outside of the midtown Manhattan hub.
Create New York is TDF’s most recent endeavor, one that partners with local organizations that prioritize the arts. TDF provides free tickets to members of that group—like The Dream Center in Harlem—to see four shows in one year: one Broadway, one Off-Broadway, one in their neighborhood, and one Dealer’s Choice.
“I think it’s really important that everyone gets to go to Broadway because Broadway belongs to all of New York; I think they need to know there are smaller theatres because that’s what you can afford in the long haul; and you need to know that every neighborhood in this city has art in it,” says Bailey. But the key is that these groups bring theatre back to their community.
After a year of theatre, TDF grants $2,500 to organize a community event around a theme connecting the four works. As neighbors gather, their curiosity in the origin of the event delivers an organic segue way to talk about the theatre that inspired it and build awareness for the arts.
Building on national programs like the National Open Caption Initiative and training for autism-friendly performances in regional theatres, this type of outreach to decentralized locations—where people need to learn theatre is for them—characterizes the next frontier for TDF. As Bailey says, “We’re the ones who want to be able to say, ‘Let’s see if we can create an appetite for theatre in this community.’”
What the Future Holds
Creating an appetite means answering to what people seek in their arts and entertainment. The 2017 study of Public Participation in the Arts from the NEA shows 50 percent of people go to theatre to feel excited and 40 percent go to feel engaged. “Entertainment doesn’t mean dumbed down; to be challenged is entertaining,” Bailey urges.
TDF’s executive director urges there is much work to be done in how the industry attracts audiences in the first place. “What’s next is how we talk about theatre. Not ‘a hilarious comedy from the director of starring the star of,’ because if you’ve never been [to the theatre before] you don’t know the ‘director of.’ You didn’t see that play, and you don’t know who that actor is, and ‘hilarious comedy’ actually doesn’t tell you what you want to know.
“People want to know what the story’s about,” Bailey says. “It’s about how we tell stories, who tells the stories, and how we make sure that people want to hear those stories.”
And so TDF is embarking on its research phase. “I want to start testing: what if half the people got a show description that said this and the other half got a show description that said that? What would that look like and what would I learn?” she wonders. “I’m fascinated in doing research that actually helps people and that is rooted in real life experience.”
Here to Stay
For half a century, the behemoth of good will has tackled tickets, accessibility, mentorship and education, community, and, in turn, its own identity. In its consistent response to audience needs, TDF fortifies the industry. Ten years ago, on October 17, 2008, TDF renovated the Times Square booth that launched its impact, erecting the now iconic red steps at 47th Street and Broadway. “[The renovation] was a way of saying ‘Trailer gone. Here forever,’” says Bailey. And with that permanent home, TDF continues to climb.
As the offshoots of its work unfurl from New York City across the country, its guiding principle “that the arts are essential and that everyone should have access to them” remains intact. Though the founders worried about the fate of drama and discourse, the billboards of Times Square seem to shout that theatre is alive and well and people are not only talking about it, they’re loving it.
Think you learned about all of TDF’s accomplishments and programs? Think again. Flip through the full timeline of TDF’s 50 years and all of their offerings, provided by TDF:
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.