Brother, Can You Spare a $60 Ticket?

by James Haro

No theatre company wants to sound or seem desperate for attendance. Some discretely contract out papering services hoping their regular patrons and their actors will remain ignorant of the fact that half the audience got in for free and a good portion who had free tickets didn’t even show up (this sounds more sinister than it really is, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect). I hear stories of non-profit theatre artistic directors complaining that “the people aren’t coming”, and yet they keep their regular admission prices at $60 and up. Sure there are rush tickets available but there ain’t no line around the block for ’em. There are promo codes, but what good are promo codes if no one uses (or knows about) them? These are stale, worn out, tired “attempts” at discounting. We as theatre artists and producers can do so much better.

I was prompted by my confidant, the beautiful playwright Monet Hurst-Mendoza, to write on this topic. She had me read an article about Pay What You Can (PWYC) ticketing, which we are both big proponents of, and how it’s energized the now closed run of Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology  at Pillsbury House Theatre, a non-profit in Minneapolis. Their experiment of having a PWYC policy for each performance during this run coincided with a 30% increase in attendance. Go figure; more accessible admission options led to a bigger audience. What a revelation… The article is great and all but I came across something in the comments section that got my heart racing in a real Angry Patrons sort of way. It read:

“This tactic may work in isolated instances, but there’s no way it could be successful as standard, long-term practice. For proof I point to the for-profit world – if they could make more money this way, they would’ve done it a long long time ago…De-valuing the work will never be our road to salvation and I feel sorry for any organization who builds their business model on depending on the random “kindness of strangers” that’s required to make these kinds of stunts work.”

This may be my naivety creeping in again, but is discounting prices REALLY “de-valuing” art? Obviously there are people out there that feel this way. However, I fail to see how increasing the amount of people who pay for the art de-values it in the least bit. Price is only one way to determine “value,” and sadly in our monetary based society people see it as the only way. So how about a non-profit who’s mission is to have PWYC tickets ALWAYS?

Enter into the ring Coeurage Theatre Company, an LA based non-profit who’s mission reads thusly :

We, the Coeurage Theatre Company, exist to make impassioned theatre accessible for all audiences through pay-what-you-want admission and fresh, challenging productions.

ONLY PWYC? Gutsy, I know. So, I asked the Managing Director of Coeurage, Gedaly Guberek, to respond to the comment above. He generously gave his time and took it apart line by line.’

1. “De-valuing the work will never be our road to salvation.”

Gedaly: “This is where things start getting a little fuzzy. I don’t think we’re devaluing the work. We’re asking our patrons to value it for us… as far as ticket price goes, anyway. Consumers use many factors to determine the value of a product or service, a major component of that being price. This car costs 5,000 more than this one… it must be better. Cirque du Soleil charges $100 for a show, they must be awesome. But price isn’t the only factor: taste, quality, experience, referrals, and more all play parts in a consumer’s decision. “I drink X because it tastes better than Y,” “I shop here because they’re always so friendly.”

So what we’ve done is removed the variable of price. Now our audience has to look at the quality of the show, previous experiences, referrals from friends, budget, mood, and then fill in the blank of the price variable.

Business experiments with removing or changing variables happen all the time. Coca Cola bills itself as something that’s cheap and tastes good. Some people think “What if we forget cheap price and good taste and just advertise the caffeine?” Boom, Red Bull was born, which is twice as expensive as Coca Cola and has never been marketed as a good tasting drink. Whether it is or not is up to you.

But what happens when we remove the price altogether?

Herein lies the challenge of Pay What You Want/Can/Will/Think It’s Worth/etc. Will the consumer be fair? Will they think that it’s just a cheap ticket? Does PWYW translate to free for them? Will they think less of us? Do they think that we’re devaluing our product? Do they give less than they think it’s worth because of that?

Radiohead released an album online and let the fans download it for whatever price they wanted to pay. Even zero; I hear they did very well. Many other independent music artists are now experimenting with this model to distribute their work. Panera opened a location that let customers pay what they wanted; that store got a lot of buzz. Street performers have been around for hundreds of years and make money based on the tips that people give them; guess what? street performers are still around.

PWYW isn’t really a new idea, but the execution of it in the recording industry, restaurants, and theatre companies is.

2. “…if they could make more money this way, they would’ve done it a long long time ago…”

Gedaly: “I don’t think so. Taking away the value variable of price is probably the single scariest thing you can do. It’s much safer to come up with a catchy product name, or put flashing lights on something. So if you’re scared, don’t try it. Find the business model that you believe in and proudly stick to it.”

3. “I feel sorry for any organization who builds their business model on depending on the random “kindness of strangers” that’s required to make these kinds of stunts work.”

Gedaly: “I feel like I should add here that the majority of large arts organizations, LORT theatres, for example often ONLY have around 50% of their income from ticket sales. The rest is unearned income, including grants, gifts, donations, etc. These organizations absolutely have built their business while depending on the “kindness of strangers.”

Yeah, but does it work? I hear you asking…”

4. “…there’s no way it could be successful as a standard, long term-practice.”

Gedaly: “We’ll see about that! Check back in a few years. Thus far, we’re not rich. But we’re not in debt either. For a Los Angeles theatre company that has only been around less than two years and is able to pay its bills with an income that is essentially decided by the audience, I think we’re doing pretty well.The company is still growing, the people keep coming, the experiment is FAR from over… but I hypothesize that the outcome will be favorable for both Coeurage and its patrons.”

Coeurage should be congratulated for the risk they are taking in the name of audience accessibility. It doesn’t stop in LA though, more risks need to be taken elsewhere! More theatre companies need to realize that ticket pricing can be just as engaging as the art they are producing. Take the NY Neo-Futurists for example who have a dice price policy. If you buy your tickets at the door on the night of the show, they are $11 plus the roll of a six sided die. ($12-$17). How fun, right!? But what else can be done? A few ideas off the top of my head: Pay your age pricing, half your age if it’s your birthday. Pay how many letters are in your name. Pay how many teeth you have ($29 for me). Pay the number of the jersey of your favorite athlete. Subsidize-a-Seat (have the option for a more well to do patron to pay for someone else to pay at a discount or free). There is no reason why a few of these ideas if not all of them could be implemented at one time. Give the ticket buyer OPTIONS. Give them a choice, make it less about how much they have or don’t have and make it more about how much money they’re willing to give. Does this make art “cheap” or gimmicky? NO! Does it make it more accessible and at times even fun? ABSOLUTELY!

I can’t stand the fact that arts institutions, whether it is intentionally or unintentionally, financially lock out those with less capacity to pay for it. If they offer discounts they probably don’t do it enough or let the public know enough about it. I know for a fact that with most students if you ask what would bring them to the theatre most they say discounted prices, however, they couldn’t tell you which theatre companies even offers such discounts. I’m sure this is the case across the board in all audience groups. Perhaps theatre’s don’t want to be too forward with marketing their discounts because they don’t want to sound too pushy. This is silly. You certainly aren’t “devaluing” the art by attempting to sell it. People will value a piece in their own way, whether that be by donating to the organization that produced it, paying full suggested price or more for the ticket, telling their friends about it, etc.

We all know the potential theatre has. We can feel it. People will start to retreat from the artificiality offered by viewing things on a screen and there will be a craving for bodies and breath and dimension. Reality. There’s a door our artform is headed toward, its the future. One foot is stepping bravely and energetically forward, the other foot is stuck in a muddy, stuffy, boring, privileged past. We must be willing to sacrifice some of that privilege, that exclusivity art retracts into, in order to gain the favor of a broader audience in order to get to that door. How do we start to do this? Simple, charge the people what they can afford to pay and perhaps pratice a little Coeurage.

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com  and produces the podcast ANGRY PATRONS RADIO.

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11 responses to “Brother, Can You Spare a $60 Ticket?

  1. Douglas Clayton

    As mentioned in your article, there are multiple variables at work. There is always an interaction between price and the ‘perceived value’ of the product which has to be taken into consideration. For example, there are shows and events that regularly sell out with prices far higher than $60. Given that fact, there remains the question of why it’s difficult to create the perception of value for a ‘standard theatre production’ that there is for other events. That is a more core question than if we can rely on generosity 100% instead of hard ticket prices.
    As an LA example, the new theatre company ‘Wicked Lit’ sold out all their shows last fall at a price of $48/ticket. They had limited seating, true, but more importantly, they had an exciting event that caught people’s imaginations and they were inspired to see.
    If you’re struggling with lots of empty seats, then removing barriers, including price, is a way to get more people in the house – and sometimes without detriment to the overall bottom line, true. I remain in the camp, myself, that creating an exciting product that grabs the imagination and people talk about is the best way to fill the house and maximize revenue.

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  2. Fascinating article. I’m interested to know what Coeurage’s income-per-ticket works out to, and how it compares to other non-profit theatres in the LA area.
    Two award-winning Washington DC non-profit theatres offer an interesting case study: Theatre A offers a flat rate of $10 for all tix, all shows. Theatre B has a much higher base ticket price (around $30) but after the traditional discounts, comps, paperings and other special deals (Gold Star, etc) were taken into account, their overall income per ticket last season came out to less than Theatre A.
    Perhaps a PWYC company could work – but I want to see more numbers than your article gives before I contemplate starting my own.

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  3. Our per-ticket income works out to be a little over $10, but we have people pay anywhere from $0 to over $50 per ticket.

    Not sure how that compares to other local companies, though I have heard that LA theatre on average plays to audiences about 20% of theatre capacity. I know we’re above that, I can get actual numbers later on.

    I think it’s cool for other people to want to use it, but for those that are considering doing a fully PWYW system in their company my initial advice would be not to do it. Don’t do it because you think it’ll get you more seats sold or because you’ll make more money per ticket than discounting more expensive tickets. Do it because you believe in it (and if you’re looking for more reason to do so, I’ll be reporting some data after we’ve been around for a little longer), do it because it fits your mission, and do it because you trust and love your community and like taking the financial risk involved.

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  4. Available Light Theatre in Columbus OH also offers all-PWYC tickets: http://avltheatre.com

    If I were to adopt PWYC for my company, it certainly wouldn’t be a gimmick. The Boston area is struggling to draw audiences, even with a huge student population. I work with the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, many of whose member groups offer a $5 student pass, but they struggled this year with distribution, and didn’t approach its potential. And many people balk at paying out the base ticket price for an unknown quantity.

    PWYC seems like such an easier concept than a complex combination of senior/student discounts, starving artist tickets, under-30 specials, rush seats, paperings, GoldStar memberships, online discount codes, secret passwords, etc… and it offers what most companies only pay lip service to: maximum accessibility to the ENTIRE community.

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  5. I’m the Artistic Director of Available Light Theatre in Columbus, OH. All our tickets have been “Pay What You Want” for every seat, every show, and everyone since 2008. Each year since then our audience has increased b by more than 100% (that’s not a typo) and our operating budget has increased by over 50% (EACH YEAR) so I’d say it’s working pretty well for us.

    We’re about to open a show, so I’ve gotta stop here, but I’d be glad to discuss this in more detail with anyone who’d like to hear about it.

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  6. I finally posted some more info and answered some questions about Available Light’s success with Pay What Thou Wilt (as someone on Facebook called it), in the form of a 14 minute video.

    http://avlt.co/avltpwyw

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