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How Pay As You Are Changed Theater Mu

According to the 2020 US Census, Minnesotans who identified as at least part Asian and at least part Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations continued to grow in leaps and bounds in the last decade, with a 44.7 percent and 51.3 percent respective increase. But this isn't surprising to Theater Mu.  Since the company was founded in 1992, its leaders have known that Asian Americans have been a part of Minnesota's history for centuries. Mu's leaders have also known that Asian American stories have been overlooked just as long.  

From Southeast Asians—in 2020, Minneapolis's largest solely Asian-identifying population was Hmong, with 83,132 people—to South Asians, Southwest Asians, first generation immigrants, refugees, Korean and Chinese adoptees, and so many more, Theater Mu hopes to tell the stories of its communities forever. But to give true representation and tell these stories correctly, the staff needs to ensure accessibility for the people they want to center and uplift. That's why in 2017, the company introduced the Pay As You Are (PAYA) system, a sliding price scale for tickets across its mainstage productions, fundraisers, and many of its programs.

This past spring, Mu managing director Anh Thu T. Pham and development director Wesley Mouri sat down to talk about how PAYA began, why it's called that, and what Mu is seeing six years after it started the program.

A group of actors perform a fight onstage.

Louisa Darr, Dexieng Yang, Suzie Juul, Rich Remedios, and Janet Scanlon in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench at Theater Mu in 2022. Direction by Katie Bradley. Production management by David Pisa. Stage management by Lyndsey R. Harter. Scenic design by Sarah Bahr. Sound design and composition by Katharine Horowitz. Lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo. Properties design by Kenji Shoemaker. Costume design by Khamphian Vang. Fight choreography by Annie Enneking. Cultural consulting by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. Technical direction by John Lutz. Head electricity by Jeremy Ellarby. Assistant stage management by Sunny Thao, with swing Ajah Williams. Dramaturgy by Jane Peña. Assistant production design by Mags Scanlon (lighting), Sophie Saggau (fighting), Alice Endo (scenic), and Yunzhu "Jessica" Chen (sound). Photo by Rich Ryan. 

How Pay As You Are (PAYA) Began

Wesley: Back in 2017, the team that put together the Pay As You Are program was very intentional around the language they used. The language we use on our website is:

We strive to voice the stories of the Asian American community. In order to bring performances to those communities whose stories we tell, we are committed to making them as accessible as possible. Pay As You Are pricing asks those who routinely pay $45 for theatre tickets to choose to pay that amount. It is the actual fair market value of the ticket. If an audience member needs to pay less, they can choose to pay as little as $10 a ticket.

So the intentionality behind a Pay As You Are structure is this idea that we ask audience members to invest in Theater Mu as an organization and really reflect on what ticket price that they should pay. When you use a sliding scale or when you use a "pay what you can," there is a common trope of, "Well, I have a $5 bill in my pocket; I guess I'll just give you that." Or "I found this spare change in my car, is that enough?" PAYA asks people to really reflect on, "What am I able to give at this moment, and what am I willing to give to support Asian American voices and stories on stage?"

The PAYA system not only provides accessibility for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities, specifically Asian American communities, but it also gives the opportunity for those who do have privilege and generational wealth to act as allies. And lots of our major donors and sustainers of Theater Mu are White allies, and lots of those people have Asian adoptee children or have a deep connection to the Asian community. Having a PAYA structure that allows people to not only pay market price but pay above market price is really an opportunity for those to put allyship into action and support the theatre in a financial way on top of their attendance.

When people say that there's no money for something, I always hear, "Oh, we've decided not to value that."

Why It Matters to Our Mission

Anh Thu: When we say things like, "We value Asian American art, born from our community, from social justice," what does that really mean if our budget doesn't reflect the valuing of high quality art? If it doesn't reflect supporting our community?

PAYA allows us to budget holistically as an organization: How do we make our work accessible to the community? How do we support our mainstage and continue to support paying people and supporting the quality of art that we do? And it's all tangled within our mission. When people say that there's no money for something, I always hear, "Oh, we've decided not to value that." And so when people come up to us and ask for things, I always think, "Where is our mission and what are our organizational priorities?" If this is part of our priority—if we say this is a priority for us—then we will figure out how to make money for that or we'll figure out shifting.

Wesley: Another part of PAYA that's worked out is we have a lot of Asian community groups and residencies at schools like Hmong Prep Academy and the Vietnamese Language School, and PAYA has allowed us to increase our group sales, introduce Asian American students to theatre at a younger age, and provide often under-resourced schools a price point that is much more accessible for them.

Anh Thu: A component of our strategic plan is to support our community of artists. PAYA is a holistic structure of Mu, of our community of supporters and donors, our funders, our ticket buyers who have invested in not just the show, but what Mu stands for.

As a midsize nonprofit, we don't have unlimited funds, and most of our funding isn't from the mainstage ticket sales. What we do have are wonderful funders whose grants are sometimes specifically for PAYA, and more and more of our individual donors are really coming to support and understand why we have the PAYA structure.

The Theatre Mu staff sit on a couch.

Theater Mu Staff, 2022. 

How It Has Evolved

Wesley: In 2017, PAYA started as just part of our mainstage ticketing policy, but we have been able to expand it into our family programming, including our special family events and our Mu Explorations Summer Camp. It also caused a major conversation to happen about our fundraisers. As the development director, one of my major goals was to figure out how to make the fundraising model accessible to our community.

Anh Thu: Right. Old fundraising models don't necessarily work for organizations like ours—smaller BIPOC organizations whose core base is not necessarily endowed with generational wealth. While we have many supporters in our Asian American and BIPOC community, even more financially stable donors have to prioritize family and “bread and butter” expenses.

Wesley: In many Asian cultures, giving circles and community grassroots fundraising are popular, and the idea of an annual black tie gala immediately ostracizes a significant number of our audience members, specifically the Asian American communities. So it's been a goal of mine as development director to institute PAYA pricing in our fundraisers as well.

It is a bit different—the market price is a bit higher and the minimum payment is also a bit higher. But the idea is that fundraising comes through community, not through the one percent, and that fundraisers are not simply about raising money. Fundraisers are also about adding buy-in to your mission and creating memories.

After we implemented PAYA to our fundraisers, we have seen a huge growth in attendance and engagement from our audience members. And I remember specifically one of our stage managers, who has worked with us on numerous projects, attended one of our 2022 fundraisers and specifically wanted to tell me they had never felt welcomed or appreciated as much as they did at our event because we provided accessible pricing for not only our audience members but for our artists.

At other theatres, oftentimes artists are asked to volunteer their time, or they can't afford a sixty dollar, eighty dollar, one hundred dollar ticket price. But we provided a twenty dollar minimum so our artists could come and enjoy and celebrate Mu's mission along with our major donors, subscribers, and audience members because they are just as much a part of Theater Mu as the other financial supporters of Mu.

It's our hope that all theatres across the country will begin to bring a more audience-centric focus to their work and continue to dismantle classes and supremacist structures in all aspects of their organizations. Radical change can bring about radical results. 

The Reality of PAYA

Wesley: We've talked a lot about the pros of Pay As You Are, but of course there are a few cons as well.  We are still navigating this conversation of how PAYA works with a subscription package. In general, subscriptions are going down across the entire Twin Cities, if not the country. And that is partially, we believe, due to younger generations becoming the major theatregoers; they don't necessarily like to plan out their lives months in advance. Also in response to the pandemic, nothing is guaranteed anymore and the time scheduling is always in flux. Currently, we use our subscription packages as an opportunity for audience members to show support and buy-in to the company by paying a set rate for a full season subscription. And so far that's been working pretty well.

It also logistically provides an issue with discount codes. If you ever want to use a "buy one get one" or different discount codes to get corporations or other groups to come and join the theatre, you can't really do that with the PAYA structure. When we think outside of traditional marketing and when we think about Mu's mission, though, there should never be any type of hurdle for people to have to overcome to see our shows.

I think the most difficult thing about PAYA is the fact that it might be a decade before we see true lasting change in who buys theatre tickets and their thought process around buying them at various price points. And the reason it's going to take so long is because it really requires audience education.

In all of our promotional materials, on all of our ticketing webpages, we have to provide really specific information about the PAYA system to help our audience members understand that BIPOC and Asian American stories are worth the market price of the ticket, and those who have the ability to pay market price should do that. Just because you can pay less doesn't mean you should pay less. That just requires a lot of intentionality behind our marketing, behind our development, behind our budgeting, and everything. 

Five actors perform as a rock band onstage.

Christopher Thomas Pow, Mayda Miller, Eric Sharp, Danielle Troiano, Shawn Mouacheupao, and Greg Watanabe in Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee, featuring music by Dengue Fever, in a co-production by Jungle Theater and Theater Mu in 2022. Direction by Lily Tung Crystal. Musical direction by Mandric Tan. Stage management and properties design by John Novak. Production management by Matthew Earley. Scenic and projections design by Mina Kinukawa. Costume design by Khamphian Vang and costume direction by Sarah Bahr. Wig, hair, and makeup design by Emma Gustafson. Lighting design by Amy Adelaide Nguyen and Karin Olson. Sound design by Sean Healey. Fight choreography by Annie Enneking. Associate direction by Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan. Cultural and language consulting by Mongkol Teng. Dramaturgy and dramaturgy advice by Cody Kour and Annie Jin Wang, respectively. Assistant scenic design by Yunzhu "Jessica" Chen. Audio engineering by Micah Kopecky, with swing Charlotte Deranek. Technical direction by Matthew Erkel. Head electricity design by Ray Steveson. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Anh Thu: In looking at the statistics, the PAYA system is working and is worthwhile for us as an organization. Mu started the program in 2017, and of course the pandemic has to be taken into account when analyzing the data, but in 2023, we're happy to say that we've seen a 10 percent increase in Asian American audience members since the institution of PAYA—and that was one of our major pillars of the reason we wanted to do PAYA.

Reviewing the statistics from the year that Mu launched PAYA, only 15 percent of our audience members paid market price, which is a pretty low number. Many of them paid just under market price, but with continual education for our audience members, Mu has seen a steady increase every year since then. Excluding the year that we were completely shut down and doing only virtual—and largely free—programming, from 2017-2020, we went from 15 percent of our audiences paying market price to 34 percent to 45 percent. In 2022, we saw 48 percent of audience members not only paying market price but paying market price or above, and the parts of our community who could help cover others' ticket costs were beginning to do so.

Before the pandemic, the average ticket price for a production was the market price. So while only 48 percent of the audience is paying above the market price, that 48 percent helps us to support many in our community who cannot pay market price. While Mu has seen the average price paid per ticket drop below the market price due to the pandemic, having PAYA meant that when we returned to in-person theatre, many who were financially impacted by the pandemic could still attend a Theater Mu production. In the last two years, we have seen many sold out performances. We have also been seeing a steady increase in the average ticket sales from the pandemic low.

Wesley: A Pay As You Are pricing model may not be not a perfect fit for all theatres, but Theater Mu has received positive feedback on the program from audience members, donors, foundations, as well as other arts leaders. To those who are interested in implementing it or similar models, prioritizing this accessibility and community engagement must be built into the core principles of an organization in order for any type of progress to be seen. It's our hope that all theatres across the country will begin to bring a more audience-centric focus to their work and continue to dismantle classes and supremacist structures in all aspects of their organizations. Radical change can bring about radical results.


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