Nonprofit Theaters Experiment with Inclusive (Even Free) Ticketing Strategies

NicholasConstantineKyriacou [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 2, 2019; KUOW, WHYY

In Seattle, the regional Intiman Theatre, which recently retired a long-standing debt that at one point had reached $2 million, decided to mark this new chapter in its nearly 50-year history by giving away each and every ticket to its next production. On the other side of the country, in Philadelphia, two small theater companies are experimenting with pay-what-you-will ticketing. In all three instances, the objectives include making everyone feel welcome in the theaters and sharing artistic productions with larger audiences.

Clearly, there’s a high level of trust involved in offering tickets at low or no cost, knowing that actors and production teams still must be paid, along with covering facility costs and other organizational expenses.

In Seattle, where only 20 percent of Intiman’s total budget comes from earned income (like ticket sales), the board has backed the idea of giving away all tickets to its July production of The Events. Executive director Phillip Chavira told KUOW reporter Marcie Sillman that he’s confident they can raise enough money to cover the costs of this production from members of the community who share their vision for providing “free access to professionally made art.” For now, Intiman is only offering free tickets for this one play; if the experiment works, they may extend the offer for future productions as well.

The Events may be the perfect theater piece to experiment with in this way. It is a two-person play (and so has lower production costs than a play with a large cast) and was inspired by the mass shooting that took place in Norway in 2011. As described on the company’s website, the play “explores our search for healing and forgiveness in the wake of a mass shooting. Each showing will integrate a different community choir into the performance.” In addition to the (unfortunate) timeliness of the topic of gun violence, all those choir members may help to expand the play’s audiences. And even though the tickets are being given away, this investment in community-building may pay dividends further down the road. As reported by KUOW, the free tickets represent “a concrete manifestation of the company’s mission: to wrestle with inequities.”

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, two generous funders have subsidized inclusive ticketing strategies at Curio Theatre and Azuka Theatre. Tiny Curio, which has been operating in West Philly as a nonprofit theater for 15 years, is launching a pay-what-you-will ticket model with its current production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. With a $10,000 grant from the Wyncote Foundation, the financial risk is somewhat mitigated, at least at the outset. Part of the ticketing strategy—called CuriosiTix: PLAY It Forward—relies on two things: the goodwill Curio has established in its socioeconomically diverse neighborhood through its productions and outreach and education programs, and an expectation that those who can be more generous, will be.

One of the reasons Curio expects to attract new audience members through CuriosiTix is the success it has had in recent years by offering $1 vouchers for theater tickets at a neighborhood Dollar Stroll each summer. As company member Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin told WHYY’s Peter Crimmins, “If we give you a ticket in July, are you going to remember to come back in February or April?” The answer has clearly been yes. “We sell out. People line up to make sure they get them.” And then when the new season starts, audience members almost always redeem the tickets, demonstrating that people in this community are interested in theater, but may not always be able to afford full-price tickets.

In 2016, nearby Azuka, with support from the Barra Foundation, introduced a pay-what-you-will model for all its productions. Azuka produces new plays, which means prospective audience members are less likely to be familiar with the work and perhaps less inclined to invest in full-price tickets. So now, Azuka’s audience members are asked to pay for their theater experiences as they leave, based on the value they place on what they’ve just seen on the stage. As artistic director Kevin Glaccum told WHYY, this approach “starts a conversation between the makers of art and consumers of art. They are telling us what they think via their wallets.”

The Barra grant subsidized tickets for the first two years of the new model. Glaccum extended it for the current season because it has been so successful, and he plans to stick with it as long as it continues to work. He explained, “Our numbers have gone up in attendance and income. Considerably. Like, 30 percent. People are giving us more money, and more of them are coming.”

Do these inclusive ticketing strategies represent the next wave in growing theater audiences? NPQ would love to hear from our readers about other nonprofit theaters that have tried new approaches to making their work accessible and inviting to community members. Feel free to add a comment below.—Eileen Cunniffe