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September 23, 2008

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Jon Steinhagen

Absolutely. In my opinion, growth in any arena is predicated on the POSSIBILITY of growth. If your show is running for twenty performances and your theatre can seat fifty people, perhaps set aside four free seats each night. Fill those seats, and you have the potential of eighty return customers for your next show. During the Columbian Exposition, Chicago realtor S.E. Gross advertised plots of land west of the city and offered free train rides to interested buyers. Once they got off the train, the curious were met by a brass band followed by lemonade and sandwiches and a liberal dose of propaganda regarding the new developments. It worked. People bought. Not everyone, but enough to eventually fill what has become five near West suburbs.

115 years later, this sort of hucksterism is a bit more refined, but - in my opinion - the potential success of this measure relies on how it is marketed. Some people might intepret "free seats" as "Oh, this show must be a turd, they're GIVING away seats." It's all in the presentation, I believe, and potential new patrons should be made to feel as if Chicago theater is THE place to be (it is), just as fun as a ballgame or "Dancing with the Stars." Lastly, it is my personal opinion that we - as creators of theater - need to do everything and anything we can to bring the public into our shows...because the politicians don't seem to be doing anything for us (I could be wrong, but I don't find much evidence of this). We can't rely on hopes for a "best case scenario" regarding the economy, as any day now it may either grind to a halt or land back in the laps of the rascals.

Empty seats can be demoralizing. This summer, I saw a fantastic production in which I knew many of the cast who lamented that - despite the company's best endeavors and a Jeff recommendation - they were performing to an average of eight to ten people per performance, and the majority of those small numbers were usually made up of friends and/or Jeff judges.

In my experience, I've learned that actors will do their utmost to entertain no matter how many are in the audience, but their experience is so much more rewarding when there are more bodies in the audience than onstage. The comps that go to our friends, family and associates are fine and dandy - why not do the same for total strangers, who have the potential of being as thrilled by their (possibly) first jaunt to see live theater as we were when we began.

I apologize for the length of the comment but not the sentiment. Off soapbox now; refreshments will be served in the lobby.

Dan

Okay, here's my thing: Having been in on "to comp or not to comp" debates inside various companies, I gotta ask: how do you make sure that these tickets are going to the folks for whom they are intended? It's the same thing companies argue about HotTix or Goldstar: what's to stop the highly tuned-in people who are avid theatre-goers from using these free tickets to see shows they likely would have seen anyway, thereby succeeding only in robbing companies of ticket revenue?

And what's the mechanism to prevent that from happening: are we leaving it up to the non-paid, overworked company member who works the box office to argue with a loyal patron who wants his/her free ticket, and wonders why freebies are being given away to others while they've seen (and paid for) every show Such-and-Such has ever produced?

I mean, sure, we want avid theatre-goers to share our desire to grow the audience, but in my experience most avid theatre-goers want to save a buck, as well. Depending on how this is handled, you could feasibly not only NOT get new people, but drive away some of the old.

Theatre companies understand the value of giving something away for free to generate goodwill and repeat business. Hell, I would wager most theatre-makers secretly wish they could do it all for free anyway, so uncomfortable are they with asking for money for anything. But discount programs are inherently risky, and need good systems in place to make sure the long term benefit actually plays out. Otherwise, you risk falling into the same trap most companies fall into: focusing on the easy, fun-to-do stuff (like making art or giving away free stuff) and ignoring the foreign-but-critical organizational work.

Ed

Dan, your post gives me conflicting feelings- I consider myself one of the avid theatregoers you describe in your post. First of all, I guess we're talking about two different things here- to me there's a big difference between paying a reduced price for a ticket and getting a comp. I buy reduced price tickets all the time, whether it’s attending previews, attending industry nights, or, yes, going on HotTix. I’m also a Saints member, so I usher a ton as well- I prefer that to just begging a comp, because I get to work a bit in exchange. I do try to cut down on the number of comps I use, because if I like a company enough that I want to see their show, I think I should try to put at least a little of my money where my mouth is. But sometimes I’ll use comps that are offered, yes. And when I do, unless a production is completely sold out on that night (oh, if only, right?), and my comp reservation on the books is actually preventing theoretical paying customers from attending, I'm not stealing from anybody.
In my opinion the target audience for HotTix is simply the people who are savvy enough to know about and buy tickets from HotTix. A lot of those people are going to be regular theatergoers looking for a deal. Is this a problem? The fact of the matter is that while I'd see theatre anyway if I had to pay full price every time, the amount of theatre I'd be able to afford to see would be drastically reduced. But I'm not laughing gleefully sitting atop the pile of cash I'm 'robbing' from theatre companies; I'm on a budget, with only so much to spend at the theatre in a given month. I have lots of companies I love and want to support- why not try to support as many of them as possible, even if it means paying some of them less? Wouldn't a company rather get $10 from me than $0 and me not showing up at all because I had to spend three times that with someone else? And wouldn’t they also rather have a volunteer usher who knows what he’s doing than have to hire additional front of house staff? I know what *my* theatre company's answer would be. I guess I'm having trouble understanding the principle here- I think that attracting new audience members is one reason to offer discounts and comps, but isn't (and shouldn't be) the sole reason, especially for companies that profess to be not-for-profit.
As an aside, there's more to the value an audience member provides than just the money they hand you in exchange for a ticket- first off, in my case, I have a big mouth, and when I like a show, *everybody* I know hears about it- including some people who would buy a ticket. Also, while this is admittedly a more nebulous and touchy-feely benefit, the energy of an engaged and interested audience member in your audience does have an effect on the energy level of the performance and the enjoyment and responsiveness of other audience members- most obvious when you're doing comedy, I guess, but true regardless of genre. In other words, even if I didn't pay, contributing my energy to the audience at that performance can still be valuable. Without an audience, storefront theatre is just self-indulgence in a little black box. Or rehearsal.
I think the model I like best right now is the one that Quest uses- pay-what-you-can. That way, anyone who wants to experience their work can do so, regardless of their financial situation. It strikes me as more in keeping with the spirit of founding a theatre company with non-profit status- the primary goal of their productions clearly is to share their work with the community at large. And by the way, yes, I did drop a donation in the hat when I saw their latest show.

Dan

Ed - I started a long reply and realized it would be better placed over at my blog: http://i-homunculus.blogspot.com

Dan

Heidi

I think the FNOT could be excellent. Many of the blocks of tickets sold out pretty quickly, leaving only tickets for less well known companies, who presumably will benefit from the folks who initially logged in to see if they could get free tickets to Steppenwolf or Second City.

As for the "who gets it" there are some pretty strict rules about how many tickets each patron can get, and the League is doing a pretty good job at policing it. They're even making sure that people aren't using multiple email addresses to claim an unfair number of tickets. The league--not TCG, but the league--is also providing a lot of helpful hints and support for the theater companies so we can hold on to as many of the new folks as possible.

I think it's great, but then again my show always has at least a few empty seats, so the marginal cost of adding an additional patron is zero and the possible benefit is great. I might feel differently if I was giving away seats I was likely to be able to sell.

Kerry Reid

I did a piece on this initiative for PerformInk, and I think what's helpful is that patrons have to pick a theater they haven't been to before -- so even if they have attended one of the bigger houses in the past, this might encourage them to check out a smaller company. And the return rates were, I believe, something like 70% for theaters in other cities who have participated.

Kerry Reid

I'm on crack today. Disregard my earlier comment. Yes, the return rate is 1/3, not 70% -- Christ, if I'm pulling numbers out of my ass, I should work for the Treasury Department.

But at any rate, I agree with the idea that it's better to have a live person -- particularly a new patron -- in a seat than to have empty seats.

Nick Keenan

The results so far in participating in this program at New Leaf seem to be - we'll see on the nights themselves to see how many folks show up - INCREDIBLY encouraging. We've been allowed to choose the nights where we make these tickets available so that they're most effective for word-of-mouth efforts, and the tickets got snatched up almost immediately, which we really weren't expecting. Best of all, the data being collected by TCG means we've already been able to start building a relationship with these patrons before they come to see the show (along the lines of "we can't wait to meet you, by the way, if you can't make it please contact us so the tixx don't go to waste") I don't think I can remember a marketing initiative that allowed us to connect with so many new patrons already interested in theater (a big second to Kerry's point above) with a single effort.

Again, the proof will be in the pudding of how many of these folks actually show, but if we get even 50% of the folks on the books to show up, we'll be clamoring to do this again next year.

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Not exactly related to this post but... are you going to discuss the possible revival of the Fairness Doctrine? It sounds like a law being passed in Atlas Shrugged.

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