“It’s about trust…like a stage dive.”
Most Artistic Directors of local theatre companies would probably not compare a change in ticketing policy to taking a flying jump into a mosh pit. Then again, most Artistic Directors around town aren’t offering their entire season — every performance of every production — for as little as the currency denomination that is perennially in danger of being phased out as obsolete.
That’s right: tickets to Forum Theatre’s entire season will be on a “pay what you want” basis. And Forum’s AD Michael Dove assures me that, although you need to pay something, although you can’t get in for free, you can pay as little as one penny. That’s the deal.
Entering its tenth season, Forum received some unexpected news a few weeks ago. Round House Silver Spring — the venue next to the AFI Silver; the space Forum has called home for the past few seasons — will, after next season, no longer be administered by Bethesda-based Round House Theatre. Consequently, Forum’s future there was by no means assured. In fact, it didn’t look promising at all.
As Dove tells it, Forum had a Board meeting the very night that this unpleasant news was received. A question was asked him, in the context of this uncertainty. If you were facing Forum’s final season, what would you want to do? His answer was that he would want to pull the trigger on an idea he had been entertaining for a couple of years: Take a chance on a radical ticketing policy that would encourage new audiences and community engagement by virtually eliminating cost as an impediment to attendance.
There’s a trade-off, however. The “name your price” seats will be unsecured, available before the show, with the risk that a particularly attractive performance might fill up before you reach the front of the box office line. (New Yorkers or cultural tourists may have experienced the agony of waiting in line and then not making it into a free Shakespeare in the Park performance — I have.) Dove says that Forum averages houses of about 40% to 60% capacity and therefore thinks the risk of someone being turned away is low. But certain Forum shows, such as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (being revived this season), were sold-out hits. Its critically acclaimed Angels in America was also a hot ticket.
Forum’s first PWYW show:
Agnes Under the Big Top
How Pay What You Want works:
Pay what you want as you enter
Chance to pay more as you leave
All PWYW seating is unreserved, general admission
A percentage of these seats will be set
aside for each performance
For guaranteed seating:
On sale soon here.
As Dove quickly acknowledges, Forum isn’t the first theatre to try something along these lines.
There are risks, of which Dove is quite aware, but he says that if the company collapses, he is “okay with that.” Obviously, he doesn’t hope for, or expect, the company to fold, but his point is that an experiment such as this is a praiseworthy endeavor, even if it fails. There is also risk to landlord Round House Theatre as Forum does a gate-split-for-rent deal with it; Forum needed and received the support of that company and its Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rillette in order to go ahead.
Regardless of risk, this initiative addresses knotty problems facing smaller theatre companies, revolving around accessibility and community involvement.
Remember the dude from Crown Books whose TV ads proclaimed “Books cost too much?” Well, Dove feels that theatre costs too much and is, consequently, always in danger of pricing itself out of reach for some.* Let’s face it: the “elite” arts, by which label, pejorative though it may seem, one could describe almost all live performance, don’t attract audiences that reflect much economic diversity. Along with the graying of the audience, and the question of how to shift antiquated subscription-based models to something more compatible with the arts-consumption habits of Gens X, Y, and Z…well, few questions have consumed as much paper and as many consultant dollars as the question of how to make theatre attractive to audiences who never go to theatre, in part because they believe it’s unaffordable.
Dove recounts how theatre folks point to concert-goers in the millennial generation who are willing to pay as much for a band as some non-profit theatres charge for tickets. The difference, he argues, is the incentive discrepancy between seeing an artist to whose music they might listen daily and going to a play they may never have heard of.
Many theatre mission statements speak about community, inclusion, fomenting discussion, etc. However, if you want to see a play at some of those theatres, you can sometimes experience sticker shock. (I know I have.) I was impressed with Dove’s ambitions for this initiative, and one can’t but hope that the optimism, and altruism, imbedded in this impulse bears fruit.
Dove spoke about cross-pollinating audiences, so that someone with a particular interest in a piece centered on gender issues might return, if barriers are removed, to see a piece focussing on the immigrant experience. Instead of concentrating on ways to make people pay, he asks, how can we find a way to let them pay? I’d rather have 3 people paying $5 apiece, he said, than one person paying $15.
Interestingly, the model allows for a reverse of the usual traffic flow regarding arts pricing. Usually, I tell you what this piece will cost (depending on where you sit). If you think it sucks when it’s over, you can vent to your friends or post an excoriating comment on Facebook. Dove says, however, that he wants “to know how you value the product.” Consequently, someone who can afford it can be stingy on the way in and more generous on the way out, depending on how that person responds to the work.
I asked Dove if it was at all daunting that local companies who have tried similar approaches aren’t around anymore. Dove said that was a good question and one that he had thought about. As at several other points during the interview, he stressed that what Forum is doing is not meant as a reflection on what others are or are not doing. As regards this comparison, he said that he doesn’t believe that “they got it wrong.” Rather, he points to the ticketing piece as a first step. The harder work will be to connect awareness of that policy with the non-theatergoers who will want to avail themselves of it. Calling Silver Spring “ridiculously diverse” and “a planned community that works,” Dove sets his company a bar that is at once high and, for many non-profit performing arts groups, frustratingly elusive: becoming integrated into the life of a community beyond the existing class of arts consumers.
Will karma work in Forum’s favor? It’s too early to tell, but Dove reports that things are looking brighter for the company staying put. They are in talks about becoming part of a consortium that will be resident at their current venue (which presumably will change its name when no longer administered by Round House). Having made a psychological investment in the new neighborhood (and having seen audience size roughly double since decamping from H Street Playhouse in NE), it is Forum’s hope to have a future in Silver Spring.
On a personal level, Michael and I reminisced that it has been ten years since he moved to DC, where one of his first gigs was working electrics at WSC Avant Bard (then Washington Shakespeare Company) on Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, which I was in and during which we met. In fact, he came to Clark Street Playhouse as a new addition to the DC community and was shocked. Literally. I remember the accident report. Later, when I directed another Stoppard play (Hapgood), he was in the cast. I mention this in the spirit of full disclosure; I eagerly attended the first Forum production and have seen much of its work, up to its most recent show, The T Party, which I loved and about which I wrote for this site.
Agnes Under the Big Top by Aditi Brennan Kapil, directed by Michael Dove, opens September 5, 2013 at Round House Silver Spring. Details and tickets.
* Price Escalation
At the risk of sounding like an old man who bores everyone with stories about how inexpensive things were when he was young, I’m going to bore everyone with some memories of becoming a theatre-goer during my high school years.
It was 1973 when I got my drivers license and started heavy, nearly compulsive theatre-going. I saw numerous touring shows at the Kennedy Center and the National, both of which offered half price tickets to students. Top ticket at the Eisenhower then was $8. I think a musical at the Opera House topped out at $8.50. At Arena, I was a volunteer usher, so I don’t remember what tickets there would have cost, but I think seats at the Folger were around $4-5. Balcony seats at the big houses were something like $3.50, so, at half-price, I saw many things for under $2.
My first Broadway show (Equus) was in 1974. I bought a day-of stage seat, which was around $4. Top price then on Broadway for plays was $11. In 1975, the highly anticipated musical was Fosse’s Chicago, and it was big news that it was going to burst the $15 ceiling and sell Saturday night orchestra seats for $17.50. Saturday night orchestra seats at The Book of Mormon in New York are $299 ($252 for seats in and behind Row T). If I’m doing the math right, that’s a 1,700% increase. (To be fair, in 1975, they didn’t have premium pricing, but the increase still is 1,500% for the “non-premium” $255 seats). By contrast, movie prices have gone from $3 to $12.50, which is closer to a 400% increase. I also remember when gas was 27 cents a gallon.
Alright, I’m done boring you, now get off my lawn.