The Business Case for Radical Hospitality, or No-Cost Access to Theater
Aditi Brennan Kapil is the Playwright-in-Residence at Mixed Blood Theater Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here , and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
Since the 2011–2012 season, Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis has practiced Radical Hospitality, providing no-cost access to all mainstage productions for any audience member.
Part two of this series curated by Aditi Kapil, playwright-in-residence at Mixed Blood, examines the pragmatics of how Radical Hospitality works, “The Financial or Business Case,” in a conversation with Managing Director Amanda White Thietje, Community Outreach & Marketing Manager Brie Jonna, and Artistic Director Jack Reuler.
Amanda White Thietje: So, Radical Hospitality was designed as a free ticket initiative launched in September of 2011. It was a mandate passed on to the team by our Board of Directors, and by our Artistic Director Jack Reuler. Originally it was designed to revolutionize access to our mainstage. Audiences told staff and board through surveys and interviews that ticket cost was the biggest barrier to access, so the board decided in 2010 that rather than skirt the issue they’d just get right to the heart of it and make the tickets no-cost. I came on board that fall as the Director of Radical Hospitality to help launch the program.
Brie Jonna: And now we’re in our third year. I’ve been here just over a year, as the Community Outreach & Marketing Manager. Something that Jack always says—that I think is a great way to describe Radical Hospitality—in theatre, it doesn’t just matter what you’re seeing on stage, it matters who you’re seeing it with. So we really have a goal of not only putting challenging, thought-provoking, diverse work on stage, but also of diversifying our audience so that when people are seeing that work, they’re seeing it with a diverse group of people, and that impacts the experience.
Amanda White: And then over time we realized that for Radical Hospitality to truly be a mission-based initiative, it can’t just be about giving our audiences free tickets, it’s also about providing our audience access to our space, to the artists, access to our process. So from those realizations we created a program called Free Speech, which was run in its first season by our Producer-in-Residence Jamil Jude. Free Speech was designed to allow audiences to engage with the work via social media, in writing, and in person. We recruited a street team of audience journalists to see shows and write reviews for their social media networks, we created post show FreeForums to allow the audience to lead a conversation around the issues they thought were important, and we implemented a Sunday Salon series that gave audience members deeper access to material by engaging community experts to come in around the play and talk about it.
We also came to the realization that in terms of our facilities, we’re a bit of a disaster right now. This past spring we launched the silent phase of a capital and major gifts campaign (“the Social Capital Campaign”) to begin work on revising our facilities to provide exemplary access for those facing barriers to a hospitable experience, and we introduced a free cab-ride program for audience members who self-identify as having disabilities. And all of this is part of Radical Hospitality.
It opens that door for people. And making the arts more accessible, which is a huge part of Mixed Blood’s mission, is really important.
Brie: I think it’s been such a success. Just looking at statistics you can see our audiences growing younger and more diverse. We’re bringing in people with lower income who either didn’t have the resources or the interest before. If Radical Hospitality had been around when I was in college, I would have been able to see so much more theatre. It allows people who are not necessarily “theatre people” to take risks. If it’s free, I’ll try it. It opens that door for people. And making the arts more accessible, which is a huge part of Mixed Blood’s mission, is really important. Art has great meaning, but it can accomplish its work in the world so much better if people can access it. Also, on a wider scale you can see the principle catching on, people from different theatre companies across the country are asking us about Radical Hospitality. Other theatres are taking notice, and I think that’s partly because we’ve had results here.
Jack Reuler: We never intended to be proselytes preaching the gospel of Radical Hospitality, hoping that other theatres would adopt it. We do hope that other theatre leaders will acknowledge broken models that merit reinvention. We have been approached by other theatres about the internal decisions around substantive institutional change and some have made changes after hearing our story. (We studied Signature Theatre, The Public Theater, and TCG’s Free Night of Theater before our unveiling.)
Amanda White: In terms of how we fund ourselves, we were initially very fortunate to receive Legacy funds from the Minnesota State Arts Board that essentially replaced ticket funds for that first season. That bought us some time to take a look at our funding structure and determine how we could supplement moving forward.
Brie: What most people don’t realize is that for many nonprofit theatres, ticket sales cover a very small percentage of the budget as a whole, so when we shifted to Radical Hospitality, it was not really a huge budgetary shift.
Jack: In the early explorations of a new model, we discovered that “free is cheaper than cheap!” What that means is that the infrastructure needed to have five dollar tickets cost a lot more (in terms of staff and data) than no-cost admission.
Companies came in who may not have been interested in funding an arts organization, but who were interested in funding social service efforts.
Amanada White: It turned out that Radical Hospitality created a social service effort in addition to an arts effort, so we were able to expand our prospecting. Companies came in who may not have been interested in funding an arts organization, but who were interested in funding social service efforts. Allianz, for instance, participated in the transportation fund, and even more significantly, agreed with us that access to the arts is a quality of life issue. So being able to really expand our funding base has been central to our success.
The other aspect is that our individual donor base has expanded significantly. The average individual gift has dropped, but in the first season we increased individual donor response to our solicitations by 300 percent. So in terms of thinking about the marathon instead of the sprint, our hope is that we eventually build out an individual donor base to help sustain Radical Hospitality.
Jack: Mixed Blood’s earned/contributed income ratio has shifted from 40/60 to 27.5 percent earned income and 72.5 percent contributed. Some regional and national foundations as well as state and federal governmental sources increased their grants in recognition of our willingness to experiment. At Mixed Blood adaptability has replaced sustainability as an administrative value and we insist on taking risk and moving swiftly rather than being risk averse and moving cautiously. We capitalize risk and have yet to be disappointed in the decision to try new things. (My need for change may be diagnosable, it feeds me artistically, spiritually, and with good results.) The excitement of risk is contagious and can glue a body of people together.
Brie: There’s a lot of manual labor in audience follow-up—to get proper data through a long process of engagement. I can say, anecdotally, that people who can pay, will pay, which is great. “I can afford to, so here’s a donation at the door.” I don’t feel like anyone is taking advantage, and frankly if they are, good, that’s what it’s there for. But people who can help support it, do. That helps keep us running.
Amanda White: We have not profited from Radical Hospitality, we’ve essentially broken even. The math of it is that we’re responsible, every year, for replacing roughly $180,000. We do this through individual donations, funding—the advantage that I’m finding is that funders are more likely to connect deeply to an organization that is deeply rooted in its mission. Radical Hospitality puts into razor sharp focus what we do: what we do well, what we do poorly, areas in which we can improve, areas where we excel. The case for why Mixed Blood should exist and how it can serve the community is really clear. And that has helped us make our case to the community at large, but also specifically to funders.
Jack: It was a wonderful discovery, predicted by our board president, that funding “users” as well as play makers allowed a broader net to be cast for funding. Since, at its core, Radical Hospitality aims to convert nonusers into users, this broader net has yielded improved results.
Brie: And “Guaranteed Admission” provides an additional source of income. Half of the tickets per performance are available to be “Guaranteed” for twenty dollars a seat, and along with Season Passes, this creates a traditional sales model with income goals. But in general, our model is more “instead of paying for admission, pay when you really appreciate and can or want to support our work.”
Amanda White: In terms of pragmatics, when we instituted Radical Hospitality we realized that our staff in its current form wasn’t designed to meet the needs of this different kind of audience. So in the transition, we got rid of the development director and marketing director positions, and we created a community outreach team; those two people are working together around audience outreach, Brie Jonna and Jill Michaelree.
Brie: I’m community outreach with more of a marketing focus, and Jill is community outreach with more of a development focus. The way it breaks down is that I focus more on getting people into the space, and Jill does follow up and works to engage them further from there. She does the work of inviting audiences to invest more deeply in what we do, to buy in.
Jack: Marketing, production, and development are joined at the hip at Mixed Blood. Our work is collaborative and seamless when we can determine to whom Mixed Blood wants to speak, find virtuous programming to speak to those populations, and then find subsidies for both the production and its audiences. When we are strategically connecting audience ambitions, programming, and fundraising (to subsidize those audiences and the plays they see), Radical Hospitality is at its best.
Amanda White: There have been pros and cons to that construct; we’ve shifted a little bit as we go, and we haven’t figured it all out yet. The big idea works, the logistics aren’t quite in place yet. Radical Hospitality is part of our organizational culture now, and we’re still working out the kinks. Another challenge for us in terms of fundraising is that there’s sometimes this mentality of “well, if you’re giving tickets away, you must not need my money.”
Brie: Giving away tickets is not as easy as you might think, or as I would have thought! You can’t just pull anyone off the street and convince them that they want to do something just because it’s free. So you keep making a case for what you do and why it’s valuable, why they might enjoy the experience. Another challenge is making sure people don’t think it lacks value because it’s free.
What does it mean if I sell half the house in advance, and then the Radical Hospitality seats are not filled?
Jack: Value has been central to the overall conversation around Radical Hospitality. Value is on a continuum of quality and cost, so by maintaining or improving quality and eliminating cost, one optimizes value, not dilutes it. That is important messaging that we need to often repeat.
Amanda White: How do we generate demand for a seat? What does it mean if I sell half the house in advance, and then the Radical Hospitality seats are not filled? What if over time our audience members learn that they don’t have to buy a ticket at all, and that they don’t need to worry about coming at the beginning of a run because even in a crunch they’ll get a seat? That’s great from a mission perspective, but from a marketing perspective, if we’re trying to generate press and buzz around a piece, it can complicate matters.
Brie: Season passes have changed a lot under Radical Hospitality. There’s a lot of discussion in the general theatre community, about subscriptions and whether they’re worthwhile, and it’s a particularly tricky question under Radical Hospitality. There’s a lot of clarification needed, a lot of guiding audiences, and that’ll be a long process. It’s a mix between needing to change and refine as we go, but also not change too much or too often, because every time you change something, people get confused—which can discourage them from participating.
Amanda White: It’s a major concern for us that we’ve lost some of our traditional theatre-going audience. We’ve been really focusing the last two and a half seasons on outreach to nontraditional theatregoers. Nine percent of Radical Hospitality users last season had never seen a piece of live theatre before in their lives, which is good and right. Our single-minded focus on access may be at the cost of continuing to reach out to the core constituency of theatregoers who are the backbone of Twin Cities audiences.
Brie: I really feel that the marketing and sales part of my job is completely different from the community outreach part of my job. They could be two completely separate jobs. It’s a fine line we’re trying to balance here, and I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. But I absolutely think it’s worth it!
Amanda White: We’re halfway through our third season, and the plan is to analyze at the end of this season. My biggest fear would be that, because Radical Hospitality is a national test model on some level, any of Mixed Blood’s marketing or process experiments would translate as program failure (that’s what Mixed Blood does, that experiment thing). The bottom line is this: my early assessment about Radical Hospitality is that it really works in a deep and imperative way. It’s good for our community, and it’s good for the field.
Our next installment will further investigate the audience and artist experience of Radical Hospitality.