Richard Cahan had an idea. If theatres were worried about programming risky work because audiences might not shell out money to see it, and audiences were balking when it came to taking a chance on something new, why not just eliminate the risk?
Cahan’s a part-time program officer with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation in Chicago, so he came up with a plan: the foundation would back a money-back guarantee for some plays and take the risk of new work out of the ticket-buying equation. He went to the theatre community with the plan:
Cahan was surprised to find that “some people thought
it was a bad idea. They were worried about the commodification of
theater,” thought there was already enough tension there, and didn’t
want to emphasize it.
Cahan had stumbled into quasi-taboo territory. Most
media coverage of theater is written as if the author were blissfully
ignorant of the fact that normal people have to fork over hard-earned
cash to be in the audience. Critics, who usually get the best seats in
the house without having to pay for them, aren’t compelled to think
about what it means to pony up for a ticket and then have to peer
between heads from a seat under the balcony at a show that might turn
out to have been overrated.
When critic Kelly Kleiman brought the
cost-value equation into a blog discussion on the WBEZ Web site a
couple months ago, she reaped abuse from numerous commentators,
including some of her peers in the critical ranks. But Kleiman, who
wrote that her reviews are intended to provide her “listeners–people
who might or might not spend $45 a ticket to see this production–with
an answer to the question of whether they’ll get their money’s worth,”
had her finger on the real world’s pulse: if you’re selling tickets,
you’re dealing in a commodity, and if you’re buying them, price and
I love the phrase “commodification of theatre”. Theatre as product. Which, of course, it is if you’re paying money to see it. There is, of course, another transaction going on – the payment of one’s time and attention, which is often undervalued. So what basis would you use for asking for your money back? For me it would be indifference. Too many things I see are performed without passion. A faulty premise not well tested during rehearsal, a performer going through the motions, a dumb idea nobody challenged…