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Theater companies adjust pricing to attract bigger audiences

| Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, 9:01 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
August Wilson's niece, Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis of the Hill District, welcomes the audience to the free performance of 'Gem of the Ocean' at the August Wilson Center in the cultural district, Downtown, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville is one of the sites that Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks performs its productions.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Garrett Storm is Ferdinand, and Tessa Markle is Miranda, as they perform 'TheTempest,' at Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. The performance was presented by Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Michael Mykita is Prospero and Allie Wagner is Ariel as they perform 'TheTempest,' at Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. The performance was presented by Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks.

Filling seats and growing diverse audiences is a constant concern for theater companies.

“We're always looking to solve the problem,” says Mark Clayton Southers who serves as the artistic director for theater initiatives at the August Wilson Center and is also the founder and producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. “We live in a society where there are a zillion cable channels. It's an era when it's hard for people to gravitate toward live theater.”

Minneapolis artistic director Jack Reuler believes he may have found the answer — free admission.

Last season, Reuler, the founder of the 35-year-old Mixed Blood Theatre, embarked on a three-year program that offers free admission to every performance in its season of four plays and four staged readings.

The idea isn't completely new.

Lots of theater companies seek to fill empty seats or widen audience by giving away blocks of tickets through social-service organizations. Others offer reduced-price or pay-what-you-will deals for select — generally less well attended — performances.

A handful offer admission-free performances. New York City-based Shakespeare in the Park celebrated its 50th season this summer with two productions in Central Park, and the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., offers an annual Free-For-All production. But those productions are not part of the theater's regular season.

What makes Mixed Blood Theatre different is that every seat for every show in the season is admission-free.

At least half of the theater's 200 seats become available two hours before the performance on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration is required, but donations are not suggested or accepted.

Those who want to be guaranteed a seat can pay a $20 fee online or by calling the box office. But that service is limited to 47 seats per show and there are no assigned seats for either first-come, first-served or guaranteed admissions.

The program was an immediate success, Reuler says: 47 percent of those who saw last season's shows for free were younger than 30, 33 percent had incomes under $25,000 and 30.3 percent were people of color.

“We had fewer empty seats. Attendance (for the 2011-12 season) was 8 percent higher. Four percent of respondents said they had never been to a live theater performance before. We were actually creating an audience for theater,” Reuler says.

That sounds great. But how does Mixed Blood make up for the lost revenue?

“People's first question is ‘How do you pay for it?',” Reuler says.

Foundations and private donors stepped up to subsidize the initial season of free admission, Reuler says.

The company receives a significant amount of income from its regional touring program where host organizations pay Mixed Blood for its performances. The company also receives income from third-party rentals of its theater and rehearsal halls

But what's most encouraging is that donations have increased 300 percent since the program started.

Although there are no direct solicitations for money at performances, donation envelopes are placed in programs and every patron receives a follow-up mailing.

“We went from 90 to 270 donors,” Reuler says. “We exceeded our expectations in number of donors and dollars. The average gift was two-thirds of what it was before but the aggregate (amount) was higher.”

“I think it's brilliant. … I applaud the man's courage,” says Tami Dixon, producing artistic director for Bricolage Production Company. “As a producer, I want a full house. I know we keep people away every time we raise our prices.”

For its first three years, Bricolage did free performances.

“It was a way to build an audience and transition them to look at different styles (of theater). We were a 94-seat theater and it gave us a nice base of people to build on,” Dixon says.

But it doesn't guarantee that audiences will remain loyal or develop a taste for theater. When Bricolage began charging admission, its audience declined by 30 percent.

“There are people who look at the papers every week to see what's free,” Dixon says. “When we do free things, these people come back.”

The company still offers free tickets through community organizations.

But free admission also can change the perceived value of a theater company or a production, says Jeffrey Carpenter, Bricolage's artistic director. He says he saw a difference in attitudes between those who paid full price and those who received free admission for its recent production, “Strata.”

“I noticed a lack of appreciation (from) the invited audience,” he says.

More importantly, distributing free tickets doesn't necessarily guarantee attendance, Carpenter says. Those who have not paid for tickets don't feel like they're losing money when they don't show up.

Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos' worried about that when the company began distributing free tickets for the community-night performance it does for each show.

“But, in our experience, people are using the tickets,” she says.

Free admission isn't the only way to encourage new audiences and encourage a more diverse mix of attendees, many point out.

Each summer since 2005, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks has performed a comedy or tragedy outdoors in several city parks.

“Part of our mission is to bring classical theater to places or people that may be underserved,” says artistic director Jennifer Tober. She believes people attend because the show is in a park, not necessarily because it's free.

Contact with audience members leads her to believe most of the 200 to 250 who typically attend a performance could afford to buy a ticket.

Pittsburgh Playhouse picked up new patrons when it initiated a pay-what-you-will policy for the first Saturday matinee of performances by The Rep and the Conservatory Theatre Company. Consumers can set their ticket price between $1 and the face value of the ticket.

The Oakland-based performing-arts center also is experimenting with discounts for undersold performances and with deep-discount offers on marketing websites such as Groupon and Living Social.

“It allowed us to increase our audience. A lot of senior citizens take advantage of it,” says Chris Hays, director of marketing for the Point Park University Conservatory of Performing Arts that administers the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Old-fashioned marketing methods also work, Boos says.

“We definitely get repeat business at reduced prices — the student and artist discount is valued but whether that turns into regular patrons, I don't really know,” Boos says. “Would Quantum be better off to lower prices and (have to) turn away people (from full houses) and see if they would (return) if tickets were more reasonable? That's an experiment worth trying.”

Southers has had good success attracting first-time theatergoers to the August Wilson Center with free performances of Wilson's “Gem of the Ocean.”

But he's not sure that it's the only approach to take: “I don't think free is the answer. But there should be some component that allows people to come for free,” Southers says. “If 10 percent come back, that's worth it. … It's one of the ways of reaching out on a level that everybody can understand.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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