Money Back Guarantee – Can You Take The Risk Out Of Paying To See Art?

moneyback.jpgRichard 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
value count.

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…

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  1. says

    When I have tried to resolve patron problems, I try to find a solution other than returning money. Certainly, I haven't been entirely successful in some cases. This seems like a default request people make. As you note, having problem attending a performance isn't like finding a defect in a product you have purchased.
    This summer people will attend performances at places like the Utah and Oregon Shakespeare Festivals which means traveling great distances, paying for meals and accommodations. Are they truly going to be satisfied if the only solution available is getting what they paid for their tickets back?
    Granted this is a more extreme example of what people do year round attending local arts events. My point is, an arts organization has to go a lot of farther than money back guarantees to solve problems. The guarantee is about the weakest option available.

  2. says

    The idea of "guaranteed satisfaction" any time money changes hands is a ridiculous construct of the post-WWI industrial world. You are not paying to consume something; you are paying for an experience. The way we respond to experiences have as much to do with us–our moods, emotional and intellectual baggage, our willingness to open up to something new rather than surround ourselves with sameness–as with the programmed experience itself. There is absolutely nothing anyone, outside of you, can do to "guarantee" a satisfying experience.
    Cheesy analogy time: I'm planning a trip. If I am a city girl who collects high fashion the way little boys collect trading cards, my dream vacation is not likely to be one where I am parachuted into the Amazon to survive off the land for a week before being rescued. Unless I choose to look at the world in a new way, I am not likely to enjoy this experience, even if the travel company guaranteed it.

  3. says

    I completely agree with Elizabeth. On the surface, having a money-back-guarantte seems like a good idea, but what is the cost to audience attitude?
    Like Elizabeth said, 'its all about the experience'. The attitude one takes going into a performance of any kind will strongly affect their liking or not liking what they have seen/heard. If I go into a performance not really caring what happens because I know, in the end, I can get my money back, I may be less inclined to really pay attention and get into the performance. Thus, the entire audience will be less than fully committed to the performance.
    This may be a slippery slope argument, but it is one I see prove as valid when it comes to other situations where moneyback guarantees are offered. When offered such a guarantee for say, diet pills, people are a lot less likely to give things a chance. At the first sign of something not working out or something not going the way they had thought it would, people are inclined to give up, and give it back. Afterall, "I can get my money back, so why should I put any effort in to trying to make it work?"
    Performing arts are an experience, not a deal you buy out of the "2 for 1 bin".

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