The line began forming before the booth opened at 10 a.m., and as many as six TDF patron representatives with iPads packed with info were on hand to help visitors make up their minds and spark conversations with other patrons about shows.
“There’s a lot of people on this line who are going to Broadway for the first time. And people are scared – ‘Where do I go?’ ‘What do I see?’ ‘How does it work?’ ” said Bailey. “You come here and you just listen. There’s this fellowship of people having a conversation about theater. I don’t think that fellowship is ever going to go out of fashion.”
The 18-member strong red-shirted representatives are all theater fans, having seen all the shows on offer and aware of the best and worst seats in the city’s various theaters. Most patrons get through the line in less than 45 minutes, longer on holidays.
The representatives gently untangle the desires of visitors, or tell them that Take Me Out is about much more than baseball. “Today on the line someone asked whether Nathan Lane was performing in Once,” said Michael Buffer, 25, who leads the representatives, all of whom are outgoing and personable. “My staff knows how to say The Phantom of the Opera in as many languages as possible.”
Besides the Times Square booth, there are TKTS booths in Brooklyn and the South Street Seaport, which hopes to reopen in July after suffering water damage from Superstorm Sandy. The fund also has a free phone app that lists its offerings in real time.
Unlike other paid ticket sellers wandering around Times Square pushing one particular musical or play, the TKTS representatives won’t recommend a single show but instead offer a range of options appropriate to the visitor.
“We level the playing field for all of the shows. We don’t give unfair advantage,” said Buffer. “We want to make lifelong theatergoers, and if this is a first-time experience for people, we want their first interaction to be as positive as possible.”
Being inside the booth is like being in an air traffic control tower. Twelve ticket sellers man the lines and process up to 650 customers an hour, toggling between five ticketing systems.
One couple steps to the window and wants to see Once. Ticket seller Brian Roeder’s hands fly across his keyboard. He comes up with two options: “I have separate seats on full view or seats together with a partial view.”
Translation: You can sit apart with an unobstructed view or sit together and risk missing something onstage. The couple is determined to sit together and walk away happy with $189 worth of tickets.
Then William Castellano, TKTS head treasurer, gets off the phone with a theater box office with some bad news. “ Assembled Parties at 40!” he screams to his workers.
Translation: Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-nominated play The Assembled Parties, which had been advertised at the booth for 50 percent off, was now only 40 percent off. The booth had been given 13 tickets priced at $85 each.
“It’s still a decent price,” Castellano said.
On average, the three TKTS booths sell up to 40,000 tickets a week in the summer, a number that falls to about 20,000 tickets in the dead of winter. Weather, the economy and celebrity pull all have an impact on sales.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years: Customers wanting a good seat. “The first question, believe it or not, is not about the price. It’s always ‘Where are they located?’ ” Castellano said.
Castellano, who has worked at the Theatre Development Fund on and off since 1982, has seen technology change the job. When he started, the booth only took cash and employed people to run from box office to box office ferrying tickets.
Keeping track of everything – the lines, the ticket supply and demand – was more than a skill in the pre-computer age. “It was an art form,” Castellano said. “Technology has kind of taken that away. But that’s OK, I’m more than happy to have less headaches.”