For the third installment of this series chronicling Radical Hospitality at Mixed Blood Theatre, curated by playwright-in-residence Aditi Kapil, we mixed it up a bit and had Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler sit down with Pillsbury House Theatre Co-Artistic Directors Faye Price and Noël Raymond to compare notes on removing cost as an obstacle to theatre-going at each of their theatres.
Faye Price: We started fourteen years ago with “pay what you can” every Wednesday, and then at some point we added Thursdays because the Wednesdays were selling out. The first show that the whole run was “pay what you can” was Nathan Louis Jackson’s Brokeology (2011), and the idea initially came from the play itself.
Noël Raymond: In our house, with our particular circumstances, we make more money on the pick-your-price, because some people pay less than what the full ticket price would be, but some people pay more, and more people come, so somehow, at least in our cursory analysis, it actually has netted us more ticket income than shows that didn’t have the pick-your-price policy. Our top ticket price was twenty-five dollars, so we’ve never charged that much.
Jack Reuler: Ours was twenty-five dollars too. We also have “guaranteed admission,” so if you don’t want to take your chances with Radical Hospitality’s first-come, first-served, you can go online. The first year it was fifteen dollars to reserve online, and we averaged forty-seven people per performance doing that. We had just tried to find a dollar amount that people wouldn’t blow off, and we didn’t have no-shows, but since no one asked about the cost, the second year went to twenty dollars and we’re just going to leave it there.
Faye: Our online reservations start at five dollars, and we don’t get a lot of no-shows with our five dollar reservations.
Noël: Right, the people who actually go to the trouble of going on the website to make reservations generally show up.
Jack: An interesting observation has been that in our three years of Radical Hospitality, the people that reserve in advance and the people that show up in the line are fifty-fifty, so you can almost predict, if there’s sixty-two people that have confirmed, that’s about how many will show up as walk-ups.
Noël: Our average ticket price last season was ten dollars and thirty-two cents, and we had 101 percent attendance, which doesn’t mean everything was completely full, but some things were more than full. This includes Chicago Avenue Project and some other things that are free.
Jack: The interesting thing is, you actually got more people and raised the earned income. We haven’t done that; we haven’t raised the earned income at all.
Faye: Have you gotten more people?
Jack: Yeah, there are more people, but less earned income…by design. Mixed Blood has not experienced full houses and a growth in income. It’s had a growth in audience, and a change in revenue streams, replacing earned income with contributed income.
Noël: And I would be hesitant to say that the growth in audience and in income was all due to the pick-your-price strategy. I think our organizational competence around promotion has gone up also.
Noël: A long time ago, we identified being seen as a neighborhood treasure by the folks that live here as a goal, and yet a lot of people weren’t coming. We determined that price was one of the barriers.
Jack: And have you increased the number of people that come from the immediate area?
Faye: Absolutely. But there are a lot of initiatives around getting neighborhood folks here, that being one of them.
Jack: I think there are a lot of barriers other than finances for getting people to come and trying to build those relationships. We did a ton of focus groups about access. For some groups it was about better bathrooms, for some it’s about staff being welcoming. We have this transportation fund for people with disabilities who can get a free cab ride to the theatre. There are all sorts of reasons people don’t want to go to the theatre other than that they might see bad plays.
Noël: The barriers are different, and they’re always moving targets. Free childcare has been one thing, and engaging parents of the youth in the youth program in the themes of the plays has really helped people say, “oh, this is really for me, it’s not for some other group of people.”
Jack: We’ve put a lot of energy into the disability portion of access. We’re putting in an elevator. We’re a great former firehouse, and now we need to be a great contemporary theatre.
Jack: In the first year it was really important to me to demonetize the theatre experience, so the only money was concessions. People would come up and say “I’d like to donate” and we’d say, “No, we’ll send you something later. There’s an envelope in your program.”
Noël: We started to have this debate about making things free even before Faye was here, and the idea that if you don’t put a price on something, it’ll be devalued. That point of view feels like it’s gone away, which I’m really happy about.
Faye: I still hear that.
Noël: But I feel like it’s gone away as an internal debate.
Jack: We grappled with that very thing at the beginning of these discussions, and the idea that value is on this continuum of quality and cost, so if you actually have the same quality or better, you’re actually optimizing value, not diluting it. So we think we’ve got a better value—and so do you—than we did before.
Noël: I completely feel the same way, but I remember in our advisory group years ago when we were talking about “what if we just made everything free,” especially in the early days when we were getting maybe twenty people in the house, and the thought that “oh no, you can’t do that, then people will think it’s community theatre,” and we already have that problem.
Faye: I do know people that have made statements like “if you make it free, I don’t feel like it has the same value.” I have heard that.
Noël: But we’re also not the place that people are going to break out their furs to come and sit.
Jack: I’ve heard it more from other theatres than I have from the theatre going public, for whatever reason. “Why can you do that and we can’t?” might underlie that.
Faye: Do you do season tickets?
Jack: We have a small season ticket campaign. It’s a difficult case to make that you can come for free but you should pay to come. In the first year we had a drop-off. It could have gone to zero and I wouldn’t have been surprised. We never had a lot of season tickets—we went from about 900 to 550 in the first year, but that similar decline has continued. This year we have memberships, which is a new name for variations on the same program. You support the theatre, you get guaranteed admission for the season, and you can come as often as you want. What we determined is that people who have some sort of subscription are doing it for loyalty, convenience, and discount. The discount didn’t really matter anymore, leaving loyalty and convenience.
Noël: We started doing them because we had a few regular people who started asking, “Can I just buy tickets for the whole season now?” But I don’t think we ever really promoted the season passes. An interesting thing is our communications director had somebody give him a flier for one of our shows, and they had written on it, “That’s great, but some people can’t afford it.” And right on the flier it said, “All pay what you want.” So there’s still a perception that theatre’s expensive.
Jack: To fund Radical Hospitality, we just changed the proportion between earned and contributed income. We don’t have an endowment for it and we don’t have a specific fundraising effort around it. We just changed the financial model of the organization. Because we now get contact info from more people than we used to, we’ve grown the number of individual donors. But it isn’t “now you’re replacing what was once a ticket,” it’s “now you’re supporting the organization that you’ve attended.”
Noël: And our financial model never had earned income that we were depending on. It was nice if we sold out and made a little bit of money, but it was never going to be enough to pay for the actual production anyway, so it was more a mission/philosophical shift that was in our case easy to make because the number of seats and financial priorities supported it.
Jack: Our last year before Radical Hospitality, the ticket sales were 18 percent of the total budget. It didn’t go from 18 percent to 0 percent. I actually think that’s why it’s interesting that you have more earned income in this model…
Noël: Which, you know, is fifteen thousand dollars on a good run of a show, so it’s not huge. But it’s been really interesting to see what people will pay—how that’s worked out—because to me that partially answers that value question: that actually people were valuing it higher than we were, in some way. We have people who regularly pay 100 dollars per ticket because they like the work and they like supporting that other people can come.
Jack: I think the other thing that’s important to note about both of us is that we didn’t change the amount that we were spending on the productions. Doing this never lived on the backs of the artists, which I think was initially one of those fears—a fear of the artists: if you’re not going to charge, you’re not going to pay us. So I think it’s important that the expenses of the production remained constant, or grew, while the income streams changed. There is an axiom in theatre that the more income-reliant you are, the more risk-averse you are, and so I think both of us have been able—because we weren’t income-reliant before—to still do what we want to do.
Faye: Brokeology brought us a group of people of color with MS, and they come to everything now—it’s introduced us to some new groups that stay with us.
Noël: The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry last year sold out almost before it opened, which was the result of a lot of things, including the community engagement portion on that show. But the thing that’s a big success to me with The Road Weeps… is that it’s an almost three-hour play, language heavy, period piece…so normally you would think that this is not your box office heavy hitter, but people loved that play.
Jack: For me, the success is that other organizations have come to look at it, and not think “how do we do Radical Hospitality at our theatre,” but how do we look at ourselves differently, how do we serve us, and our community, and our artists, and our board, and our staff, and our financial model, and be a better who we are than who we’ve been. It’s a freedom to think—starting not, as so many theatres do, with “what does our audience want, let’s do that,” but with “who do we want to talk to, and how do we do it, and now we can.”
Noël: Logistically, ticketing systems being able to accept whatever anyone wants to pay has been a technical challenge that we’ve resolved with a long stream of ticket price options on our website.
Faye: Also, now that people are expecting the pick-your-price, when we have productions at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, it’s a challenge for an audience used to seeing Pillsbury House work to follow us there. But the Guthrie does what they can to help our audience with that. They’re about as accommodating as they can be, given their model, to work with us and help to provide a lower price.
Jack: The person that did our marketing the first year had a different handle, and then our managing director felt that combining production, development, and marketing into one conversation would be helpful, which is really wise, but takes awhile to find its level. So only in the last two shows of the third year have we actually had the marketing up to the speed that we want to be at, where the houses are full, where the audiences are who we wanted them to be.
Jack: The board agreed that for us, Radical Hospitality would be a three-year commitment, and then would be analyzed. I don’t believe that Radical Hospitality will go away. I think it’s become a brand, unintentionally, for the organization, but I do think it’ll continue to morph and change as we look at what the impact is, and what the trends of attendance are, and use of the building, and we’re in our moment of analysis right now.
Faye: I think for us, it’s so much part of what our goals are, since we’ve merged the community center with the theatre. We’re thinking about this whole entity, the theatre and the social services, as trying to be radically porous in terms of people being able to move about and access different things and be engaged in different ways. So figuring out how to manage that complexity is the next thing.
Jack: And aren’t we also in a moment in theatre where different art forms are melding and blurring more? We’re part of the continuum of people evolving theatre, and people will do it differently five years from now, including us.