Post image for Catching the Pass

(Photo: Gerry Goodstein. Pictured: Amy Staats and Lynette Freeman from WAKING UP by Cori Thomas, directed by Tea Alagić)

Having previously featured the ACTpass in Eliza Bent’s April 2011 Strategies column in American Theatre, we were excited when Ensemble Studio Theatre’s ESTpass press release crossed our transom. Was this an idea with legs? How would new play powerhouse EST repurpose the pass? EST’s Executive Director Paul A. Slee was kind enough to explain it all for me.

1. What was the genesis of the ESTpass?
A couple of years ago our Artistic Director, Billy Carden, handed our most frequent attendee his business card, and wrote “Season Pass” on the back. When we saw in American Theatre magazine what ACT had done, it just clicked.

2. How does it work?
It’s like a gym membership: for $25 a month you can attend any and all EST performances as often as you want!
The ESTpass provides:
- guaranteed admission to all of our shows.
- up to 50% discount on tickets for friends attending the same performance.
- No charge to see a performance more than once.
- a Partner Discount card for business establishments in our Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and discounts to performances at partner theaters. We helped form an alliance of area cultural organizations called HK (Hell’s Kitchen) Arts a couple of years ago.
- No charge for replacing or exchanging ticket dates, no order processing fees when booking tickets.

The ESTPass is flexible, convenient and spontaneous for our audiences.

3. Is there a particular demographic you’re trying to reach with the ESTpass?
Yes, the newer residents in our neighborhood and the general metro NYC theatre audience. EST has been a cultural anchor and economic engine for this neighborhood for 40 years, but we’re known as a “hidden treasure” because of our location far from the nearest subway. We want to change that.

The real draw here is the abundance of artists EST presents along many different themes, including:

  • A young playwrights program EST/Youngblood that attracts an audience of peers in their 20s
  •  Going to the River, a festival of short plays by women of color who bring all of NYC into the house
  • Science and technology-themed plays for everyone curious about global human endeavor
  • A major one-act festival for loyal audiences who want to see virtuosity every 20 minutes
  • Instant plays written under pressure for people who enjoy risky theatre business
  • Brunch plays for a Sunday audience hungry for pancakes and mimosas
  • And as a developmental theatre we offer plays that turn into longer plays or series, which you can follow if you keep coming back, and so on.

You now can flash your ESTpass and see it all, and repeat!

4. What would success for the ESTpass look like?
We’re not going to know for a while, but if we can begin to see many more new AND familiar faces in our intimate spaces, the impact will be more in how it feels than how it looks.

Reaching a sales level of 500 ESTpasses in its first year would be great for dependable revenue, but that kind of growth isn’t the main objective. Our goal to grow a larger audience eager to participate in this community as it puts out a huge volume of works.

A successful ESTpass will deepen the interaction among artists, staff, designers, crew and audiences coming together repeatedly over time to see many new plays. This is a vibrant artists’ community that is growing all the time, and the output is scary and fun. The ESTpass invites audiences onto the exhilarating roller coaster ride that is this community at work.

5. In reading about the pass, I was struck by the diversity of your programming. Beyond just Mainstage productions, you have the Youngblood Brunches, the EST/Sloan Project, the First Light Festival, the annual Marathon of One-Act Plays, RoughCut productions and more! What drives such busy and varied programming?

EST was ranked #1 in NYC and #2 in the country (after the Humana Festival) in Outrageous Fortune, the 2009 TDF publication by Todd London and Ben Pesner, in their playwrights’ survey. It’s the artist-driven play creation juggernaut of EST that earned that ranking.

The EST membership now numbers over 550, and we welcome and embrace new talent every year. There’s a spirit of creativity that permeates this place that spans four generations of theatre professionals. The energy is intense, as is the knowledge being passed along. Our task as administrators is to provide a stable, safe environment for these artists and audiences, grow our budget, and get out of the way.

Our box office increased by over 20% last season from the year before, and we’ve added staff and productions while paying down old debt. EST is rising!

The River Crosses Rivers II, a recent festival of short plays by women of color is the second such festival we’ve presented in three years. Charles Isherwood recently wrote in a Sunday NY Times column about how uncommon it is to see multiple plays by African American women in a single New York season. It’s exciting to be kicking off ESTpass in tandem with this project: there is a huge audience for this work that is not being served well. EST can do it, as we’ve been discovering new voices since 1968.

Our audience is accustomed to seeing short plays and one-acts, so the idea of EST as a destination for these formats is established. We’re less well-known for full-length play productions, so we’ve come up with a festival of full-length plays called Playfest. The ESTpass is tailor-made for the EST festival experience.

Paul A. Slee is Executive Director of The Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.) in New York.  He previously served as Executive Director of INTAR and of New Dramatists, where he created grant, fellowship and award programs for American playwrights.   Slee has helped several not-for-profit organizations get started, including TeatroStagefest and LiveOutLoud.  He has advised Women’s Project, the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, Nuyorican Poets Café, E.S.T., Talking Band and Monarch Theatre.  He is an alumnus of McGill University and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he was a Founders Scholar.