When Public Art Exploits the Public
how Joe Papp’s legacy is crushed by an app
I seem to start every article I write with the assertion that I love public art. I do. I go out of my way to see public art installations; I read free local newspapers specifically because they tend to report on public art installations; and when I come across a great free art installation, I do my part as a citizen and I spread the word on my Facebook and Twitter accounts , and frequently I also blog about it.
You can imagine my passion for The Public Theater. Joe Papp is my hero. His mother was even born in Lithuania! He took an art form that was at the time considered “above” the common person — outside the reach of any but the leisure class — and set up a system whereby the best actors with the best directors, set and lighting designers, could showcase the best material in a gorgeous outdoor venue where tickets cost the audience nothing but time.
A system was created whereby humanity could spend three to sixteen (thanks, Patrick Stewart) hours standing on a long outdoor line (or “in” the line if you’re a tourist to NYC) for 2 free tickets apiece, while befriending the people before and after— it was an exercise in democracy, where everyone was equal the moment they realized they needed to trust others to hold their space in line (or hold their pee for the next very long while…) Networking happened on these lines, friendships were forged, picnics embraced strangers, old and young; and every race, nationality, and religion mingled over their equal desire to spend no money to attend a live theater event with a script by a long dead playwright who nonetheless is immortal.
And then the pandemic came and standing in line with strangers became anathema. (Unless you were standing in a line to buy toilet paper, get a Covid test, or waiting to get vaccinated. Then it was okay.)
To be clear: I am pro science and I wear my mask in all indoor locations, and now with this Delta Variant (which sounds like a thoughtful but forgotten Dustin Hoffman 1980s sci-fi title) I am masking up outdoors again as well. Despite all this, I was thrilled to get word that the Public was going to present Shakespeare in the Park in 2021. Merry Wives is a wonderful comedy and setting the play with an all-Black cast following on the success of a similar production of Much Ado About Nothing is a wonderful choice.
(The irony of that Much Ado title given the production still makes me smile).
Then came the ticketing.
Friends, it turns out that now, there is an app for that.
Here’s how it works:
On Tuesdays you can sign up for some days. On Fridays you can sign up for some other days. You can only sign up between midnight and noon. Slots run out randomly, sometimes while you are signing up. Many of the options are below the screen line and you have to cleverly scroll to find them. Or click invisible links. But if you manage to figure out how to access these links, each day that has available tickets will have four different categories of tickets to choose from. A category could be socially distant over 65. A category could be full capacity general admission. There are no maps, no seating charts, no clues as to what any of these distinctions mean.
We know from pre-Covid times that the seating capacity at the Delacorte Theater is 2000. Yet on this app, there is no indication that one or another of these four broad sections is closer or farther from the stage, or up or down ramps or stairs, or on a strange sightline. These categories are not explained in the least, and yet for each day you wish to enter the lottery, you must select one of the four categories and then choose one or two tickets.
For example, if I am 25 and I am planning to attend with someone over 65 can I request an over 65 ticket? No clue.
Not until confirmation do you discover, for example, that if you chose a socially distant pod of two seats, you will be required to wear your mask the whole time you are in that seat, but if you chose the full capacity area you can remove your mask while in your seat if you are fully vaccinated.
There is also an alarming small print message that pops up on nearly every screen that vehemently insists that you are not able to return these tickets.
(Of course these tickets are free, so if you skip the event the only consequence is that your tickets will be released to the Stand By people at 7:30pm…)
I get it: lotteries are fun. It is not an orderly line waiting for tickets, it is throwing your hat into a ring of hats and in one of those hats there is a golden ticket. Maybe. But also maybe not. Try again tomorrow.
This means of ticket delivery means that each one of us is standing on an imaginary line at the exact uncertain point where the tickets will run out — and getting up early (or in this case, going to bed late) doesn’t get you an edge.
But is an app lottery fair? is this equal access? There is a secret way to “gift” the won tickets to other people as well: on the day I won for a Saturday I also won for a Monday and gave my second pair of tickets to my mother in law. She was delighted and endlessly grateful.
Not one of her friends, all veteran New Yorkers and avid fans of Shakespeare in the Park, could manage to figure out the app.
But all of this is just a learning curve. What made me write this article is not that the app seems unfair to people that do not have smart phones or have a hard time navigating phone apps. It is not that the process is confusing extremely frustrating even after you win. (Winners are notified by email but must confirm by app and then must figure out how to print their confirmed ticket from the app — not email — to show they have won at the box office. It is an insanely complicated system designed to maximize data collection — and nowhere in the instructions does it say how to access the buried “hold” tab on the very complicated app. I have an advanced degree and consider myself fairly tech-savvy and it was quite the journey to confirm my win.)
What made me write the article is that the app, “Goldstar” is a hideous, invasive ticketing app that sends unsolicited events emails every day in addition to the endless pop ups, texts, notifications and emails pertaining specifically to the only event that is of interest to me: this ticket lottery. (I suspect that most people who are not savvy enough to turn off the notifications are inundated with texts and popups from the app as well.)
Why did the Public not design its own simple app? It is certain that Goldstar is one of those “adapted” apps that some administrator finally said was “good enough” — it hits all the marks. It’s free to download. Many people can get free tickets of various kinds. It allows you to reconfirm a win with a timed deadline.
The fact that none of this process is elegant, simple, or accessible ….well, that’s just commercialism right? The app has to make money, even though it’s a free app. Your data will do for payment. Your time. Your attention.
You won’t even notice it’s gone.
What is tragic is that in this country it is nearly impossible to make art entirely free. Even with good intentions. Even with a legacy like the one Joe Papp left NYC.