Paying princely sums for a seat at UCLA’s ‘Lear’

Times Staff Writer

Inflated prices for sports events and pop concerts are nothing new. The Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” 14-year-old singer Miley Cyrus, made headlines this month with reports of brokers offering single tickets to her upcoming concert tour for as much as $3,000. At the upper end of the spectrum, premium seating for next year’s Super Bowl is available for $75,000.

Shakespeare at $1,700 a seat, however, is heady for L.A.

Yet single tickets are being peddled for more than $1,000 for the sole West Coast engagement of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company in “King Lear,” starring Ian McKellen, to be presented at UCLA’s Royce Hall for six performances beginning Friday.

Spending at “Lear” levels is rare for arts attractions. The closest that L.A. comes may be such gala events as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s annual fundraising season opener, with a minimum of $1,500 per person.


The big draw this time is McKellen, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading stage actors but far better known as the bearded wizard Gandalf in the Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” films.

The RSC’s touring double bill, “Lear” and Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” marks the first time he has performed with the company in 17 years.

The entire run of “Lear” at Royce Hall and most of the seats for the three “Seagulls” in which McKellen appears were sold out July 23, the day that tickets went on sale to the public with a top price of $90, according to David Sefton, executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, which is presenting the performances.

“This is obviously the kind of problem that you want,” Sefton said. “But it’s to the point where you’ve closed your waiting list and you know you can’t even accommodate all the people that are on that, so it is really sold out.”

Tickets withheld by UCLA from the initial public sale until the theater’s final seating allowance was determined -- after reconfiguration to accommodate the RSC productions -- are gone as well, he said.

Stubhub, a major online ticket marketplace, is now listing single orchestra seats to “Lear” at $936 to $1,706; balcony tickets start at $442. (McKellen’s “Seagull” performances are going for a relatively paltry $325 to $548.) On EBay, where bidding for one pair of “Lear” tickets topped $800, a pair of orchestra seats for the final show Oct. 28 has a starting bid of $3,000, with a “buy it now” price of $3,500.


“There’s nothing you can do to stop it, and it drives me insane,” Sefton said. “I know they’re going for $1,500 a ticket on Substub or whatever it’s called.”

The highest price actually paid for a pair has been $2,106, said Stubhub spokesman Sean Pate, and the average price paid for a single ticket has been $708. The extremely limited number of seats on offer at the website has made the RSC shows “a seller’s market,” he said.

The English troupe will conclude a three-city U.S. tour at Royce. It also sold out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Spokeswoman Melodie Bahan of the Guthrie, where the last two “Lears” will be performed today and Sunday afternoon, said that after “Lear” sold out the first day that tickets were offered to subscribers there, single tickets were going for $800 on Craigslist.

“But every day we’ve had people lining up at the box office for cancellations, and we have been able to get them in,” she said.

The last time she could recall such frenzied demand at the Guthrie was when Patrick Stewart of TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the “X-Men” films (costarring McKellen) headlined “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 2001.


McKellen was both flattered and self-effacing when he heard about the ticket prices for “Lear’s” New York run.

“The going rate for a ticket for ‘King Lear’ is approaching $3,000 for a single ticket on EBay,” he said.

“So -- well, of course, I don’t take it personally. I mean, it is the Royal Shakespeare Company doing ‘King Lear’ directed by Trevor Nunn. I’m in it, but I mean we’re only here for a short period. . . . If we weren’t selling out, there would be something wrong. Maybe nobody has [paid that price]. Maybe these tickets don’t actually get sold.”

Word of the inflated prices elicited a wry observation from John Spokes, director of development for UCLA Live. “I’m pretty sure every member of the Royce Center Circle, our major donor group, received the RSC tickets they wanted,” he said. “Compared to online prices, the minimum membership of $500 is a pretty good deal.”

UCLA Live has allotted its usual reduced student tickets for the RSC engagement -- “everything we do has around 10% allocation to students, to UCLA students first,” Sefton said. But student rush tickets won’t be offered, although he expects “optimistic walk-ups” may be accommodated.

“You never know. We might have a handful of releases, because there may be people who suddenly don’t show,” he said.


Sefton hopes that people who find they are unable to use their tickets will call the box office. And, he pointed out, some tickets remain for the three performances of “The Seagull” that McKellen does not appear in.

“As I keep saying to people,” he said, “it’s still the Royal Shakespeare Company doing ‘The Seagull.’ Just because it’s on Sir Ian’s rest day doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a fantastic experience.”


Times staff writer Paul Lieberman in New York contributed to this report.