By Justin Sanders
Remember the days when you could walk up to a Broadway theater’s box office window and buy a ticket for the show in person? Sure, there were always online sales, too, but there was something magical about actually talking to the smiling ticket seller, handing over your hard-earned money, and walking away with real, physical tickets in hand.
At every Broadway venue, there is a vast and complex system behind that heart-skipping moment of purchase – and at the center of it stands Chris Stasiuk, head treasurer for the historic St. James Theater in midtown Manhattan.
Overseeing everything from ticketing systems to box office staffing and sales reporting, Stasiuk must be as deft with internal executive communications as she is with public-facing customer relations. Day in and day out, she must confer and strategize with St. James’ highest-level personnel, including producers, house managers, and company managers, before turning outward to face hundreds of passionate, demanding theater goers head-on.
…Or at least she did do all that. As we know, everything changed in March of 2020, when the world went dark and live entertainment like theater went really dark. Normalcy has begun to return to the world in fits and starts since the pandemic began, but Broadway is still trying to figure out how to open safely in this new frontier of social distancing and increased paranoia.
As such, Stasiuk remains largely unemployed – a master of ticket sales with no tickets to sell. She is but one of millions of behind-the-scenes creative industry employees whose livelihoods, identities, and sense of community were upended by Covid-19.
“At 53, I’ve never really done anything but ticketing before,” she told CreativeFuture in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on her final days of work before the shutdown, what it’s like to sell tickets for Radio City Music Hall’s famous Christmas show, and why most Broadway shows don’t make their money back. “But I’ve had to ask myself at different times, ‘If I don’t have the St. James to return to, how do I reinvent myself?’ I’m sure so many people are having that same experience right now.”
JUSTIN SANDERS: Few industries have been hit harder by the pandemic than theater and live entertainment, so let’s begin there. Take us back to March of 2020, when the virus first started to really take hold. At the time, St. James Theater had the very popular Frozen musical on stage. I’m sure tickets were selling like hotcakes. What were your final days at work like before everything went dark?
CHRIS STASIUK: A lot of disbelief. We thought we would be back in two weeks. My Swell water bottle is still on my desk – imagine what the inside of that thing is like!
JS: [Laughs] You might want to throw that one out.
CS: [Laughs] I think so. But yeah, we were told on a Wednesday that our Thursday show would be our last and that we were going to work through Sunday on cancellations. My whole staff came in. We worked four days straight and we refunded every ticket for the foreseeable future.
Then I got food for all of us from the famous Italian restaurant, Carmine’s, which is near us on 44th Street, and we had a lovely meal. We toasted to one another and said, “We will be back shortly. Enjoy some downtime, and refresh.”
Then, in May, Frozen called a meeting with us and they pulled the plug.
I think that’s when the super sadness set in – because now we knew that our theater didn’t have anything for us to come back to.
JS: Yes, the toll theater closures have taken on workers isn’t just financial, it’s emotional – the loss of purpose, of that sense of community with your coworkers. Tell us about the work you do – when plays are up and running, what are the duties of a head treasurer at a Broadway theater?
CS: Financial reporting is probably the number one thing I do. Any money that’s coming in for the show is being funneled through my two main purviews, the box office and the treasury, so there is a lot of just crunching all the numbers and putting them all together in spreadsheets. Ultimately, a treasurer reports to, among others, both the theater owner and the producer of whatever show is currently running. Managing staff is another big task. Every day, I assign work on group ticket purchases and other projects to my team, and sometimes employees are switching tasks constantly.
So, it’s a balance of what you need to take care of for each of those entities, and that’s every single minute of every single day.
JS: Let’s break that down. You are employed by St. James Theater and their umbrella company, Jujamcyn Theaters. Is the theater’s business model then to serve as a rented facility for productions, and then that rental includes services such as the box office and treasury, as well as security, ushers, etc?
CS: Correct. For instance, Frozen was produced by Disney, so Disney rented the St. James Theater to produce its show there. The St. James, unless they are a coproducer, generally doesn’t have a financial investment in the show. Obviously, we partner with the producer on everything because we want their show to succeed – and they pay our salaries. That’s part of the reporting I do every day. I prepare a statement that says something like, “We made $100,000 today and from that sum, these are the pensions that got paid out and here is the percentage that went to this service and this service, etc.” That statement is signed by the treasurer and by the house manager and by the company manager – who works for the producer – every single show. We all meet for every performance and agree on the gross and the net and where the expenses were.
An important shift now is the power of data. My company has invested heavily in tracking each and every ticket sale and ticket buyer and turning every single piece of data into reportable and usable information.
JS: And on top of all this, you’re running the box office as well, right?
CS: Yes, you’ve got the accounting side of it and you’ve got the financial side of it including house seats, customer service, group ticketing, ADA seating, and other special projects – and then two hours before curtain, you go into full show mode. “Is our reservation rack ready? How is our premium price right now?
There is a lot involved with running a box office. Most of it is computer based but there is also a huge element that is social. At the St. James, we have almost 1700 seats, so you interact with all these people coming in. It’s fascinating seeing who’s coming in and talking to them. There is a very big portion of the job that’s social. A lot of talking. A lot.
JS: It sounds like you have to be extremely adaptable, seesawing between this behind-the-scenes analytical role and this very public-facing role where you are basically the first point-of-contact for every audience member.
CS: You have to be able to just flow from one role to the other. Ultimately, we’re salespeople. Someone who approaches the box office window can very easily walk away. How do we turn a person who’s ready to leave and choose a different show? How do we make them stay? How do we find their price point? How do we find their seat?
It’s a ton of communication with both the customers and with the people who are running the show behind the scenes. It’s using our minds and experience to maximize their goals of getting this show in front of as many people as possible and, frankly, to be able to make some money.
JS: I think a lot of people don’t understand that the majority of Broadway shows end up losing money. Huge hits like Hamilton are actually very rare.
CS: It’s such a gamble, but to be a part of the process of trying to make a show profitable is really fulfilling – especially when we get to use our own creativity.
JS: Can you elaborate on that? Because I think a lot of people probably hear words like “treasurer” and “box office” and “ticket sales” and don’t necessarily equate those terms with creativity.
CS: It’s using a promotion creatively or using your ticket inventory creatively. That’s a very important part of our profession that separates us from ticket sellers at, say, a museum or a movie house. In the Broadway world, the way we allocate tickets, book reservations, and set ticket prices has an impact on the way the show is actually going to run.
JS: Give us an example of what you’re talking about.
CS: I think that very often we are unsung heroes because audience members just see us taking the credit card or handing out a reservation. They don’t know that the other part of that eight-hour shift was spent making charts and phone calls and having conversations with the creative team to find more opportunities to put more butts in the seats.
One of my coolest experiences in Broadway was working on a little show called Present Laughter, which was produced by our theater’s president, Jordan Roth. It was only a 16-week run but every part of it was ours. We were the theater hosting the show as per usual – but in this case, we were also the theater owner and the producer of the show. So, it was all encompassing – St. James owned every aspect of that event and that was really my first time working directly with the producer to intensely scrutinize every price of every single, individual seat.
Our ticketing team was generating heat maps to determine where ticket sales were happening and what possibilities there were to expand them further. I remember being at a meeting and Jordan looked at me and said, “Chris, what do we need to do to get more tickets into more people’s hands?” I was like, “Well your demographic is over 60. You need to get me more aisle seats.” For any number of reasons, people of a certain age prefer to be on the aisle, and I knew we could sell more tickets if we opened up more aisle seats. I jokingly said, “Can we dig out some trenches in the theater and get me some more aisle seats?” And he said, “No, but I’ll release all the house seats with aisles.”
Ask and ye shall receive! But it takes a certain kind of creativity just to ask those kinds of questions, and it was very fulfilling.
JS: How did you get your start in the world of ticketing and live events?
CS: At 16 years old, I started working at the Capitol Theater in upstate New Jersey, which was a famous concert house. I worked behind the counter, selling popcorn and soda. Within six months I was brought into the box office and was working on ticket sales for acts like U2 and Bon Jovi and Metallica and Bryan Adams. The concert promoter I worked for was one of the biggest promoters in New Jersey at the time – he was the only Grateful Dead promoter on the East Coast, so I was working on every Grateful Dead show. I worked on Depeche Mode, the Rolling Stones, the famous Amnesty International concert. It was the greatest way to grow up!
JS: Did you know early on that this would be your career?
CS: No. I loved it, and everybody thought I was really cool because I kept going to all these concerts and going backstage. But then I went to Rutgers – while still working on concerts during the weekends – and I graduated with my marketing degree. I thought I was going to have a marketing job, and I applied for dozens and dozens of them. But nobody wanted to hire me as I had no actual marketing experience, so I went back to my boss at the Capitol Theater and he was like, “You can start on Monday after graduation.”
So, I became their box office manager and there was no going back from there. But then things started to change. A lot of big companies, like Live Nation, started taking over small promoters like us. The writing was on the wall and a friend of mine got me an interview at Radio City Music Hall. I became their first assistant treasurer in 1996 and I was there for 17 years. That gig was blood, sweat, and tears – sometimes six shows a day on a Christmas Saturday or Sunday. I learned all about queuing and guest relations and how the house gets cleaned – six THOUSAND seats cleaned in under half an hour so the house can let the next group of ticketholders in. Insanity. The quickness of everything, the turnaround.
It was a lot of work, but it got me into the union, which has opened up all kinds of doors for me and paved the way for me to get my current job at St. James, where I have been for five years.
CS: There is a lot of trying to keep the lines of communication open between our union leadership and the members. We are all extremely focused on the safe reopening of venues.
At the same time, we know that a Broadway show needs to fill between 75% and 90% of the theater’s seating capacity in order to make its nut, and this seems like a daunting task now. It remains to be seen how many shows a week that theaters can handle and what their capacities will be.
Think about it – how do you open a theater if you haven’t made any money in a year? You haven’t collected rent. You have no income. And now, you are tasked with completely new expenses like creating a new filtering system for your theater to zap out airborne toxins. How do you pay for that when you just lost all your revenue paying everybody back for all the tickets?
JS: These are tough questions with no easy answers in sight. At least there was some good news recently: On April 3, St. James became the first Broadway theater to reopen its doors since the pandemic began, with a special performance by Savion Glover and Nathan Lane for an audience of 150. Were you involved with the reopening?
CS: Oh my god, I was thrilled to be part of this. I actually cried when I set foot in my box office after a year away. With our new ticketing technology, Seat Geek, our ticketing team was able to email out tickets with staggered entrance info, safety covid questionnaires, and all other pertinent info required to get attendees to their seat. I was making last-minute changes to some seating, sending tickets to standby guests, and just reveling in the calmness and normalness of the entire event.
Bravo to all involved. It was very well done. The show was outstanding, too. It felt great, like Christmas morning.
Oh, and I did end up throwing out that Swell [laughs].
JS: It just goes to show how far-reaching Broadway’s impact really is and why its success is so vital to our economy and our culture.
CS: The total Broadway workforce is around 100,000 people. You have to think about every ticket seller, ticket taker, usher, stagehand, dresser, hair and make-up artist, security member, and housecleaner
And then you think, what does Broadway bring in? Tourists. New York hotels get busy, in part, because of Broadway. The restaurants fill up with Broadway ticket holders when Broadway is thriving. The Uber and cab drivers get more riders. The guy selling coffee on the corner gets more business.
Broadway’s closure has been a catastrophe for New York. It didn’t just employ so many people – it brought so many people in. It brought our city to life.