In 1982, the Walnut Street Theatre was in dire straits. If something drastic wasn’t done, America’s longest continually running theater would potentially shut its doors for the first time since it opened on Feb. 2, 1809. A transition board put out word the theater was searching for a new executive director, and as luck would have it, found its man in Bernard Havard. Now the Walnut’s president and producing artistic director, Havard—who is solely in charge of selecting each season’s shows—is celebrating his 30th year leading the venerable Philadelphia institution.
Havard was already a hot property in 1982. In six short years at its helm, he’d turned Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre into the third largest subscription house in the country. An avid reader of theater biographies, Havard knew of the Walnut’s rich history, but he was only interested in the position if the board agreed to his idea to transform it into a not-for-profit, self-producing company.
Under his auspices, by 1985, the Walnut had begun to attract an audience, but was still running a deficit, so the British-born Havard made the difficult decision to drop Shakespeare from the theater’s schedule, a decision that was all about the numbers. At the average Walnut show, he says, about 9 percent of the ticket buyers are no shows. For Shakespeare productions, a whopping 26 percent of people who purchased tickets didn’t show up, leading to the Bard’s exile from the Walnut’s stage.
A study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust found that many of the Walnut’s audience members are first-time theatergoers, and Havard insists their first theater experience should be a pleasurable one. Instead of producing challenging or even disturbing dramas, Havard is committed to accessible, populist programming that can be enjoyed by a wide audience, a strategy that has worked spectacularly well. He recalls wondering “if my tenure was going to be short lived,” but by 1987, he knew the company was on solid footing, and for the 1992-93 season, the theater boasted an impressive 36,198 subscribers. In 2002, the number had jumped to 50,365, and last season, the roll swelled to 56,000 subscribers. In three decades, Havard has taken the Walnut Street Theatre from a struggling rental facility to the world’s biggest subscriber theater.
Asked the secret to his success, Havard points to three things: programming, service and price. Although its ticket costs can reach as high as $90, the Walnut also offers an abundance of $10 tickets in an effort to make the shows affordable to as wide a range of people as possible. He takes an equally broad approach with the programming. Fine-tuned into a successful formula that includes two plays and three musicals, Havard says he plans each season around what he terms the “keystone piece,” which is the company’s all-important holiday show. This year’s selection is Meredith Wilson’s 1957 classic The Music Man.
At a typical Walnut show, 80 percent of the audience are subscribers, and the holiday show draws the youngest audience, as many subscribers bring their children—who, hopefully, will become future subscribers. “I think if you are going to grow a theater over the years, you have to bring young people into the theater,” says Havard. “Otherwise, you’ll grow old with your audience, and you might as well go off to Florida.”
Despite his 30 years of success, Havard doesn’t sound like he’s ready for Florida yet—at least not until he succeeds in realizing his dream of opening a theater-in-the-round to give the Walnut a fourth performance space. After purchasing the lot next door in 2004, Havard says their developer was forced to abandon his plans when the recession hit. However, in just a few weeks, Havard says he plans to hold “high level meetings” that may one day lead to a new Walnut stage.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2