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Removing Barriers to Entry

David Loehr • Feature • October 1, 2011

Porchlight Music Theatre presented their production of Putting It Together (with Michael Reckling & Aja Goes, shown here) at Theater Wit in Chicago. Theater Wit “Members” were able to see if as often as they liked for one monthly fee.

Porchlight Music Theatre presented their production of Putting It Together (with Michael Reckling & Aja Goes, shown here) at Theater Wit in Chicago. Theater Wit “Members” were able to see if as often as they liked for one monthly fee.

Could theatre memberships offering unlimited viewings be the cure for falling theatre audiences?

“Free for all.” “Membership has its privileges.” “All you can eat.”

Theatres around the country are taking these sayings to heart. In recent years, many smaller companies have presented shows for free with donations, or featured special pay-what-you-can performances, but larger theatres have taken note, too.

Seattle’s ACT Theatre began offering an all-you-can-eat style program in early 2010, inspired by gym memberships and Netflix’s video streaming service. This was in addition to regular ticket sales and season subscription plans. For a $25 monthly fee ($20 for attendees under 30), patrons are able to see any performance of any show presented at ACT in a given month, depending on availability. They’re also able to see a show multiple times if they want. Since the ACT Pass program started, subscription sales have remained steady.

This past July, Chicago’s Theatre Wit started a similar program along the same lines. Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler thinks the program will attract a different audience than traditional subscriptions and single ticket sales. In terms of traditional ticket sales, Wechsler compares their $36 monthly fee to the price of a single ticket at most theatres. “It changes the question for the audience member, from ‘Should I invest money in this particular show?’ to ‘Should I go out?’” If you see more than one performance a month, the additional performances are essentially free. “The additional cost is only in time, not in money. We can reject the model of selling tickets in favor of offering you an opportunity to come to the theatre.”

Both ACT and Theatre Wit present multiple productions from multiple companies in a given month, which makes it easier to offer such programs. Wechsler’s goal is not just to build audiences but to bring them back more often, as well as to encourage them to try out productions from the various resident companies producing at Theatre Wit. “A single theatre can’t offer the same variety as Netflix, but we have 35 plays a year,” he says.

Wechsler points out that a membership is more expensive than a subscription. “You get more opportunities to see theatre with a membership and there’s no upfront cost, but subscription pricing is a better choice for some people.” The two programs can co-exist because they each appeal to different audiences. Also, “a membership doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to every show; it just allows you to reserve available stock.”

Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City has just introduced a similar plan, the EST Pass. This also comes with a $25 monthly fee, although theirs begins with a single three-month, $75 charge before rolling into a monthly renewal for $25. EST board member Ann Sachs is careful to make a distinction between the pass and a “membership.” “Because EST is a ‘member theatre’ made up of the company artists, the word member is almost sacred. It must not be confused with ‘membership subscription’ or any other purchased pass.”

EST offers access to as many as 150 events a year and not just plays—this includes readings, workshops, brunches and other series, as well as events by the Youngblood playwriting program for writers under 30. Even better, as Sachs notes, the pass shows off “all new work in various stages of development. We like to say, ‘pass it on…’”
In Seattle, the theatre that seems to have started it all has added another option for patrons. ACT now offers pay-what-you-can rush tickets on the day of performance. Subscription and ACT Pass sales are up from last season, but there are still unfilled seats. For some in the community, “there’s this perception that theatre is unaffordable,” said Harley Rees, membership and audience-services director for ACT. The pay-what-you-can program lets patrons name their own price, which encourages both sampling and spontaneity. “We’re just removing another barrier to coming to see a show.”

 TimeLine Theatre presented their production of A Walk in the Woods (with David Parkes and Janet Ulrich Brooks, shown here) at Theater Wit in Chicago. Theater Wit “Members” were able to see if as often as they liked for one monthly fee.

TimeLine Theatre presented their production of A Walk in the Woods (with David Parkes and Janet Ulrich Brooks, shown here) at Theater Wit in Chicago. Theater Wit “Members” were able to see if as often as they liked for one monthly fee.

Changing the Entertainment Calculus
A common thread is talk of building community as opposed to selling shows. Each of these companies presents multiple events and productions during any given month. The main idea behind the “all you can eat” pass is the idea of turning a theatre venue into a social hub for a community, creating a place to be instead of merely a place to go. By creating more opportunities to attend the theatre—and by removing barriers like price or exclusivity—the theatre becomes a viable option for many when compared to movies, restaurants or even Netflix. After all, Netflix and the like will still be there when the theatre production is long gone.

Wechsler understands that the new generation of theatregoers is basing their decision more on individual shows than on an institutional reputation. “This leads to safe programming and marketing-driven programming that says ‘here’s what we can sell’ rather than ‘here’s what we can create.’” By making it easier to sample new work and unfamiliar theatre groups, the hope is to build a larger community from the disparate, discrete audiences of each of the resident and visiting companies.

Wechsler asks, “When is the last time you said ‘Why not?’ and went to see a show you knew nothing about beyond a short plot description? You don’t, because you’re making a $80-$120 gamble with your evening. What if that evening was $0? Would it change your entertainment calculus?”

Completely Free
This October marks the seventh anniversary of Theatre Communications Group’s “Free Night of Theatre” program, a partnership between theatres and local or regional theatre service organizations. That’s one night a year. What if it were every night?

Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis is taking that challenge. This summer, the theatre announced a new program called “Radical Hospitality.” They will be offering free admission to all of their productions for the next three years. The idea is to take away the last barrier for potential audiences, but it doesn’t mean any change or compromise in production quality. Revenue from ticket sales has been a steadily declining portion of their production budget in recent years. Radical Hospitality will be funded in part by foundations and individual donors, with additional funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

“This is a way to be true to our egalitarian mission, which is to be totally inclusive,” said Jack Reuler, artistic director and founder of the company. The primary goal is more than merely to attract audiences but to “build relationships with those who have been traditionally underserved by the arts.”

Under this program, all of the tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. If an audience member wants to guarantee a reservation, they’ll be able to call and reserve a ticket, but that will cost $15 for the guaranteed seat. The theatre is also going to continue its season subscription program as well. The beauty of Radical Hospitality is that, again, it will encourage more sampling and more spontaneity. Presumably, it will also help drive demand for reserved seats.

Said Reuler, “Theaters get funding for programming, for operations and for special programs. We’re getting funding for our users and putting them first.”

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