Coming Full Cycle

West Coast theatres entice theatregoers with bike nights

By Eliza Bent

Challenge
How do you encourage green transit to the theatre?

Plan
Create a Bike to the Theatre night and entice patrons with valet bike parking.

Key Players
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco Bike Coalition, Portland Center Stage.

What Worked
Staff members who biked, an organic pairing of interests.

What Didn't
Unexpected stormy weather, need for helmet/coat/bag checks.

What's Next
More than one Bike to the Theatre night per production, integration with other initiatives, inspiring other theatres to give it a spin.

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Or so proclaimed feminists in the 1970s. Consider what Susan B. Anthony said of two-wheeled vehicles 74 years earlier: In 1896 the civil rights leader declared, "The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world." The pneumatic tire, which was applied to the bicycle in 1887 by an Irish veterinarian for his son, revolutionized riding both for men, who commuted to and from work, and for women, who hitherto had been stuck riding heavy, adult-sized tricycles. Now ladies could tool about on versatile two-wheelers and simultaneously keep their legs covered in long skirts. Killed were the bustle and corset in favor of common-sense dress that enabled women to move about more freely. But in the late 1800s, the League of American Wheelmen, now called the League of American Bicyclists, lobbied for better roads—efforts that, ironically, paved the way for the automobile. Would bicycles, like corsets, soon be relics of the past?

While corsets have indeed been relegated to the costume shop, bicycles are still as liberating and as useful as ever—especially for the eco-conscious. At American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Janette Andrawes, director of marketing and public relations, says a large percentage of the ACT staff bicycle to work—including artistic director Carey Perloff. Why not start a "Bike to the Theatre" night to encourage green transit among patrons too? "San Francisco is known for having an active bike community," says Andrawes, "and since we had so many staff already biking to the theatre, it seemed like a natural fit."

Together with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, whose mission is to encourage emissions-free transit, ACT held "Bike to the Theatre" nights starting in September '09, once per run of a show. ACT pays members of the Bike Coalition a $250 fee to provide ticket holders with valet bike parking (audience members are asked to bring their own locks).

"The bikes are kept on ACT's grounds and there is someone who watches the bikes," explains Andrawes. "Patrons get a tag when they hand over their bikes, which they then turn in at the end of the show—like a coat check."

ACT posts information on its website and sends out reminders to ticket buyers, and the SF Bike Coalition also mentions the initiative in its newsletter. Andrawes estimates that most of the bikers who've turned up on bike nights found out through the coalition.

So far the program has had mixed results. "We've had some unlucky weather," sighs Andrawes, who notes that on rainy evenings Bay Area subscribers are notorious for exchanging their tickets for future—hopefully more temperate—performances. Numbers haven't been amazing, either. Fewer than 30 bikes have shown up per performance. And then there is the issue of helmets. "The first time around we hadn't thought about helmets, bike shoes or bags," admits Andrawes. "But we now have a designated storage area for them." (Cyclists do seem to love their backpacks.)

Despite tenuous beginnings, Andrawes does not want to abandon bike nights just yet. "So often it's easy to give up if a new initiative doesn't work immediately," she says. "And even though $250 is a substantial investment, I think a bike night is important to the community we serve." Indeed, the SF Bike Coalition estimates that upwards of 30,000 San Franciscans use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation.

10UP, on the other hand, is a recent ACT initiative that has had more immediate success and may serve as a model for future pro-bike efforts. On 10UP nights, second balcony tickets are $10 and the theatre bar opens up an hour before performances with happy-hour prices. "Our intent is to provide a space for people to talk with each other about previous performances and the upcoming show," says Andrawes, who also hopes that in the future small "expert" demonstrations will occur, wherein a costumer might give a short talk on wigs or a set designer might show a model to interested patrons.

10UP nights start at previews and last through the Sunday after opening night, for a total of 11 performances. "We may want to offer Bike to the Theatre nights for more than one performance, too," offers Andrawes, who also is considering pairing the two initiatives. "I want to continue talking with the Bike Coalition and see if it might make sense for us to have some kind of event before or after the show, or treat it like a mini-fundraiser. Like any good program, Bike Nights need to be nurtured and committed to."

Portland Center Stage of Oregon might be next to jump on the bicycle. Public relations and publications manager Trisha Mead told me a recent bike tour of the theatre—the first green venue of its kind in the U.S.—drew 70 participants. "We've also hosted a 'New Communicators' event called 'Creating Conversations Through the Love of Bicycles' that was very well attended," she says, before adding, "Our marketing team has leaped all over the bike night idea. Fifty percent of us bike to work anyway—why didn't we think of this ourselves?!"

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