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September 9, 2007

Is It Just Because It's Free?

Joe Nickell

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took our four-month-old baby to a park in the center of the University of Montana campus for an outdoor performance by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, a touring company that's been bringing professional theater to rural communities in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for 35 years now. The performance was attended by about 600 other locals, most of whom - like us - brought a picnic dinner and lawn chairs to make ourselves comfortable for the free performance.

As we sat waiting for the show to begin, a girl of about six years walked past, holding her mother's hand, and asked innocently, "Mom, what's Shakespeare about?"

The performance that night wasn't actually a Shakespeare play (the company typically tours with one play by Shakespeare and one by another author, performing the two in alternation). The night we attended, it was George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House," a play that probably few people in attendance had even heard of before last week.

Missoula is not, after all, a theater-rich town. While there's usually some production or another going on somewhere in town, the fact is that Missoula's only professional equity theater company, Montana Repertory Theatre, is a touring company that spends most of its time performing elsewhere. Most local theater is presented by non-professional community groups, university students, and one-off independent production companies.

As I strained to hear the actors that night in the park, shielding my eyes from the blazing sun as it fell toward the horizon, I wondered at the fact that the crowds for these two-nights-a-year performances show up at all. With so little in the way of a cultivated local audience for theater, and given the constraints of the performance space - the poor sound, the distracting sights and sounds that come from setting up in the middle of a college campus in session, and so-on - it surprises me that these performances would draw so many people out on a weeknight in the middle of summer.

My thoughts wandered to the Missoula Symphony Orchestra's August 12 performance in Caras Park, a riverside expanse that plays host to brewfests and other events practically every weekend day during the Missoula summer. Despite a heavy blanket of smoke laid over the city that night from area wildfires, a couple thousand people showed up with their picnics and lawn chairs to listen to the orchestra play a program of light, "pops" fare.

The free concert by the orchestra has been a tradition for three years now, and each time it happens, between 1,500 and 3,000 people show up. That's considerably more people than typically show up during the orchestra's regular subscription season, even if you count both concerts in the orchestra's Saturday/Sunday paired performances.

All this has got me wondering: Why do so many people come to those outdoor events but skip the indoor ones during the rest of the year? Is it the free admission, the relaxed social codes, the repertoire, or what?

I've seen others address this question from various angles. Over at Adaptistration, Drew McManus has delved into the question, several times, of whether these free concerts really help orchestras build audience.

Terry Teachout admits having a soft place in his heart for free performances, but hasn't (as far as I've seen) gotten into why - or why he thinks others share that love.

But none of this really addresses why free outdoor concerts are such consistent hits in the first place - often far moreso than the bread-and-butter core programming of theater companies and orchestras around the country. Why would people endure bad sight-lines, lousy sound, audience noise, and all of that for an outdoor show, yet never set foot inside a concert hall? Some make the crossover, sure. But judging from the vast difference in audience numbers, one must assume that plenty never make that leap of faith.

I have my off-the-cuff theories about this, but I'm wondering first what others think.

Posted by Joe Nickell at September 9, 2007 4:59 PM


It's the Money
If Missoula is like many of the communities I know, it's probably the cost that's a factor.
I found that in Sebring, Fla, before I joined the local amateur community theater troupe, I didn't spend the money to attend shows, even though I only lived two blocks away and it would have made a great date night for me and a girlfriend.
After I joined, I started paying for family or friends to come see me in a show or for my own admission to see friends in shows. I had a personal connection to the theater and wanted to help it succeed.
Our venue didn't see as many people at free - indoor - shows as we did at regular productions, however, our regular price was well below what one might pay in Tampa or Orlando for a professional troupe, which coupled with gasoline prices, was probably one of the biggest reasons people came to see us if they didn't drive to Tampa.
I did drive to Tampa about three or four times in an eight-year stretch to see live theater, but paid tremendously for it.
When something occurs in your hometown; in a casual setting (no formal or semi-formal dress code); allows families to picnic (no restaurant pricing); children can wander, fidget, or nap when the mood strikes them; and the event is free, then people are far more likely to go. It doesn't ask as much of them, especially of the family budget.

Posted by: Phil Attinger at September 10, 2007 3:01 AM

As former Minnesotan, I loved to pack my family for the Minnesota Orchestra outdoor concerts. It was for the social atmosphere, picnic lunch/dinner and to expose my kids to (light) classical music while running around like crazy and nobody would mind. The ticket prices for most season symphony concerts are high, but I would pay the price for family concerts. I now work for www.classiclive.com, which streams live orchestral concerts in the net. Some reasons to enjoy this service are similar to outdoor concert experience: there is no dress code, no coughing in the next seat,it's pretty cheap, I can eat sandwiches and listen to good music at my convenience.

Posted by: suomi at September 10, 2007 5:31 AM

I'm guessing the family factor is huge. What looks would you get bringing a four-month old to an indoor symphony concert or a play? It's not considered socially acceptable.

So pile on the cost of babysitters to the cost of the ticket, and the evening starts to get pretty expensive. What's more, for parents who have their kids in daycare all day, they want some time that they can spend with the children in memorable experiences. The outdoor concerts and plays fill that bill.

It also makes cultural experiences low-risk. If someone isn't sure they're going to like a concert or a play, are they going to fork over $40 to $100 for a ticket?

Great entry, Joe!

Posted by: Bridgette at September 10, 2007 7:32 AM

I saw the same play at Bozeman's Sweet Pea festival. I agree that price and family are significant. The other factor is that the character of the event shifts from "elite" to community, and that is appealing to many.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at September 10, 2007 11:08 AM

Researching a recent story on a new adaptation of an old comedy by Plautus at the L.A.'s swankest outdoor theater, the Getty Villa in Malibu (nice comfy cushions provided; oil baron's controversial antiquities storehouse as a backdrop), I found out that the Romans put on plays on makeshift stages at open-air festivals where the crowd had options: if the play wasn't engaging, jugglers or fire eaters or bear baiters or whatever were a few steps away -- which spurred the playwright and actors to be as funny and entertaining and interactive with the crowd as possible. Most modern theater is more on the ancient Greek model of sacred, cathartic religious event. But it's good there's room for both. Years ago, I enjoyed a production of Sartre's "No Exit" on a temporary stage at a street fair in West Palm Beach, where you could move on to another attraction down the way if you got bored. I still have a pretty clear mental snapshot of that experience. I think it's worth doing free shows to give people who wouldn't normally see a play some exposure, and to give actors and designers the experience of operating in an unaccustomed environment. A smart theater co. would make sure to interact with the crowd, introducing itself and its work in some fun way before, during or after the show, and passing out flyers and discount offers for its coming productions. I think they call that "outreach" in the arts biz. I'm impressed that whoever's doing the programming in Missoula made as subtly subversive a choice as "Heartbreak House," which can be very funny, but has a dead-serious vision of a British empire about to collapse under the strain of its own frivolity and purposelessness, in the face of the approaching war that intrudes upon the final scene.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at September 10, 2007 12:49 PM

Good feedback all! Bridgette, you really hit the nail on the head I think, as far as a lot of people are concerned. This is, in fact, kind of the flip side of all the economic good news coming from studies such as the recent update of "Arts and Economic Prosperity" from Americans for the Arts: The price of a concert or a night at the theater is never just as cheap as the price of the tickets.

I did a little further looking at the local results from that study, and here's what I found: If their numbers are true, then it costs a Missoula couple an average of about $34 above and beyond the price of tickets to attend an arts event in Missoula. In this town, where it's not uncommon to find people with masters degrees working at coffeeshops, that's a considerable added cost -- in fact, it's more than the price of two tickets to a concert by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra.

Posted by: Joe Nickell at September 10, 2007 3:33 PM