The Value of a Cheap Ticket

by Jaime Green
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Earlier this week I took a lunch break from work (lunch breaks not being a common thing, for some reason, in nonprofit theatre offices) and walked a few blocks west to another theatre's box office. At the box office I handed over $40 (well, that's what the debit card I handed over was charged) for two tickets to an off-Broadway show, which usually cost at least $60 each.
Why was I spending money on theatre when I'm tight enough with cash to walk almost to the Hudson River to save $2 in service fees? When I brown-bag my lunch every day?  When I work in nonprofit theatre?

It's not just that I love a deal.  I'm using my few dollars, while also buying tickets to a show I want to see, to send a message to this theatre company, with my $40 of advance sales.  And I hope that when I show up all 25-years-old at the box office, a second small message is sent, too.

I am 25 years old.  I make very little money.  By selling tickets for $20, they have made it possible for me to see theatre.  And I am buying tickets.

When a theatre does something, something out of the usual routine of selling tickets for high prices, to make it possible for me, underfunded and hungry for art, to see what they're doing, I notice.  (I also appreciate it, because hey! $20 tickets!)  I can rattle a list off the top of my head of reduced ticket prices available at theatres across the city.  I can tell you who has rush tickets, who has $20 (or 99 cent) Sundays, who sells discounted subscriptions to students or under-30s or artists.  I know where to see ballet for $15, opera for $25, and whether you need to wake up early to stand in line, flash a student ID, or just sit in the back of the house.  And I can tell you who doesn't have these programs.  And as an audience member, a theatergoer, a person with an interest in this art and this community, don't doubt for a second that an organization's efforts to make theatre affordable don't affect how I see that institution.

It's not that I think they've got an incredibly benevolent marketing director sacrificing profit so some poor twentysomethings can see their plays.  As an audience member and theatre-maker, I know there are lots of dirty reasons to sell cheap tickets.  Dirtiest of all is probably that selling cheap tickets is better than selling none.  (But even then they bemoan the choice: "We're undervaluing ourselves!"  As if anyone thinks $75 for off-Broadway theatre is reasonable.)  Not quite as dirty is that theatres get financial support, usually from corporations (and yes, I can tell you which ones underwrite the ticket programs - funders take note!), to make these reduced prices possible.  Sometimes new cheap-ticket programs get press. But at the heart of these ticket initiatives is the recognition that art-for-the-rich is not the best art we can make.
As much as we can say theatre is a dying art, there is plenty of theatre that has no problem selling tickets. Full-price tickets.  The question (to which we all know the answer), though, is if you want your organization making the sort of theatre that appeals to people who can afford to blow $75 or more on two hours of entertainment. 
I don't know a single theatre producer (in the nonprofit world, where we're supposed to be subsidized to make art, not commerce!) who hasn't lamented the pressures of catering to subscriber taste, who hasn't ruefully programmed a mediocre play, maybe with some star casting or big name writer or just otherwise safe, so that those sure-thing ticket sales could allow for other, more artistically interesting, programming.
How sad that the artistically interesting programming is taken for granted as a financial flop.  How incredibly, powerfully sad.
But what if there's another way?  What if there were people who wanted to see the new, daring work, who are excited to support theatre that aims for something besides just selling lots of tickets?
So I spend the $20 that should really go towards paying off my college loans.  I buy the under-30 subscription to a theatre whose adventurous programming I support.  I tell my friends about pay-what-you-can performances. 
We lament the demise of American theatre. American theatre is demising, if it is, because theatres are making safe, staid choices.  It's not that exciting, brilliant plays aren't being written.  It's that they aren't being produced.  Because producers (again, I'm talking nonprofit here) are terrified of not making enough money through ticket sales to be able to continue to operate.
(Their fear, sadly, is justified.  The reliance on ticket sales for income cripples artistic risk-taking, but that's another thing entirely.  Or maybe just a reason to move to London.)
The fact is, there are people who will buy tickets to daring, weird, new work.  But usually, those people are young, and usually, those people do not have a lot of money.  The math is alarmingly simple.
Here's what we know:
Current audiences are old and rich.
Current audiences like safe programming.
Younger audiences are more likely to support adventurous work.
Younger audiences don't tend to have a lot of money.
What happens when the old audiences die off? Will there be anyone stepping up to the bat to replace them?  Not if the people who are young (and poor) now don't get into the habit of seeing theatre.  Now.  While we're still young and poor.  There are people who've never seen a play before, and might be curious, but aren't going to spend $70 to try it out.  Movies are cheaper and more exciting.
Of course, without massive financial support, a theatre cannot survive on $20 tickets.  But there are ways.  Corporate grants and underwriting.  One performance a week for $20.  A handful of rush tickets every night.  And a million other, more creative ideas. 
These programs are not just discounts to sell more tickets - they are the first and most important step towards breaking the tyranny that older, moneyed, hidebound audiences have over theatres' programming, and the first step towards ensuring that when those audiences die off, there are excited, interested, committed audiences replacing them. Don't wait until we're 50 years old and rich (if ever) to draw us in.

To hear more from Jaime Green, visit her blog.
To learn more about NPAC sessions such as "The Value of a Seat", visit the website.

March 31, 2008 4:59 PM | | Comments (8)


I'm growing concerned that blogs are promoting a non-existent set of generalities about audiences and programming. What is "new and daring" exactly? What is "younger"? What is "older"? There are certain markets that don't offer senior discounts because they're affluent retirees who don't need the extra two bucks. Other markets may represent a wide spread between the haves and have-nots that make pricing acrobatic. Not every theatre caters to every market. If you are subsidized, find underwriters that subsidize your new and daring work.

Comparing anything to Broadway is like shooting fish in a barrel. They have the highest prices anywhere. They also have the most expensive theatre real-estate, ergo, the highest rent anywhere. Broadway houses have union employees - the highest paid theatre workers anywhere.

Stay local. Compare your theatre to others in your area. Price accordingly. Understand your audience, your goals, your competitive differential before you decide that the blue-hair crowd who walk out when you drop the f-bomb on stage don't understand your work and the world of hungry would-be liberal arts grads all hate Rodgers and Hammerstein.

"it's not like we're incredibly careful with our money. It's just that we don't see why we should spend that SAME amount of money on ... a play."

Many's the time when I've been out drinking with fellow theatre folk and we get around to bemoaning theatre ticket prices and then the bill comes and it's about fifty dollars each. For beer. And then someone suggests we take a cab back.

Thanks for writing. I think I'd like to challenge a few of your assumptions about audiences. FYI serve as senior marketing & communications officer for Berkeley Repertory Theatre in CA.

Firstly, current audiences may be old but they're not necessarily rich. They're just richer than you and me.

Secondly, current, mature audiences do not as a rule prefer safe programming. Witness the theatres who mount classic after classic to dwindling audiences. Because timeless doesn't necessarily equal timely. The old folks are getting bored! At Berkeley Rep, our more mature audiences are our most adventurous. They're the folks willing to buy tickets to new, untested shows, to check out forms with which they're unfamiliar. They're the folks who are willing to dislike a show and return for the next show, filled with anticipation.

Younger audiences may like new, adventurous forms of expression, but they do not like risk -- not even at discount prices. They see theatre less frequently, and attending is a BIG DEAL, and they come with BIG expectations. They seek out the validation of peers (Yelp, anyone?) before committing. They look for free drinks and music to hedge their bets on the art. So we who try to attract these new audiences bend over backward to give them a guarantee -- a video sample, a soundbite, a free cookie -- that minimizes the risk factor.

And -- I may be contradicting myself but it's a wide open world -- our younger audiences are often the ones plunking down big money for premium seats on Saturday night, and then dropping another $75 on dinner. Why? Because coming to the theatre is a BIG DEAL rather than a way of life.

We love our young audiences at Berkeley Rep. They bring their youthful energy and youthful faces into the theatre, and they bring their unique world views. They do enable us to do different kinds of work. More adventurous, maybe. More risky? I'm not so sure.

Finally, our highest priced ticket doesn't cover but half the cost of putting on the play. Those half-priced tickets we at Berkeley Rep offer to everyone under 30 are the deal of the century. You give us 25 cents and we give you a dollar's worth of show.

I'm definitely playing devil's advocate here. I don't think it's possible for a reasonable person to deny your point... that higher ticket prices affect audiences purchasing decisions and suppress audiences with less cash. And you're exactly right...household incomes that see $100 as a gifting price ("Here's a ticket to see a Broadway show, Madison!") as opposed to a price that demands sacrifice ("If you see Legally Blonde, we can't go on vacation in June!") is the real distinction. The ages aren't as relevant as the economic access that these prices demand.

I also (as much as I'd love to) can't blame the victim in terms of programming. We all love to kvetch about the lack of adventurous programming...but the fact is, economics demands careful decisions and long-term thinking. If you alienate the audience you KNOW is coming, there may not be any funding to cater to this theoretical new audience.

So in a lot of ways, the idea of lower prices is an attempt to create this new audience, so that someone can say, with some confidence..."Hey. There's a new audience. Let's put on plays they want to come and see."

Everyone knows that there's no such thing as an Off-Off Broadway ticket over $18 right? And a lot of them are a lot cheaper. And that, while there's lots that can be awful, there's lots that are pretty darn good.

freeman - I make clean-cut distinctions (and based largely on observation, personal experience, and post-show eavesdropping) for the sake of argument, but I do think that ticket prices are keeping audiences homogeneous in a dangerous way.

To your point about young audiences and Broadway, it's still audiences with money, and often parents' money. Which still means that theatre is catering to the taste(s) of people who can afford $100 a ticket, or who come from a household that can.

And sure, some of the young'uns who plead poverty do spend lots of money elsewhere. (Not all, but, yes, some.) But if those young iPod owners aren't seeing theatre, aren't they more likely to start if they can do it for $20 rather than $60? Cheap tickets alone aren't going to fill houses with diverse, eager, open-minded audiences, but I think they're a vital part of making that happen.

99 makes a great point about risk & ticket prices. Maybe a lot of older folks were into the very weird work of the 60s, but - and this is where producerial fear comes in - ADs know that older/richer folks (or whoever's already buying full-price tickets and subscribing) respond well to safe work, and can't/won't/don't risk trying adventurous work out on the established audience because it's such a financial risk. If you're producing four plays a year, and one edgy play flops or a no-name young playwright in your brochure loses you subscribers, that's a huge hit. (Which I realize is more of a call for arts funding than cheap tickets, but there's a lot that needs fixing.)

Nice post. I wholeheartedly agree.

Freeman, I think of lower ticket prices in terms of not just "youth" audiences, but diverse audience and building sustainable audiences. When the ticket price is lower, the show can suck. (Not to put too fine a point on it.) For the audience member, the risk is lower. You don't mind coming back to see the next thing, which might be more to your liking. Once the theatre can build that sustainable audience, you can take all kinds of risks (and I see, depending on the theatre and the audience, producing more "traditional" plays as a risk).

I absolutely agree that we need to do a lot more, including offering up ticket incentives, to get younger audiences in the door. Totally dead on.

I'd like to sort of pose a little bit of a CW challenge though:

Aren't there plenty of younger audiences that support safe work? Isn't much of Broadway targeted to younger audiences that have almost no money - whose parents are buying them tickets to see "Legally Blonde" or "The Little Mermaid?"

Also, is it possible that older audiences have no problem with adventurous work? I mean, plenty of the audience that is now "older" were probably in their 30s in the 1960s.

I'm curious how much of what's considered true about these groups is based less on what audiences actually want, and more based on risk averse producers justifying relatively safe decisions.

One might be able to sell full price tickets to adventurous work if the full weight of the system was behind that sort of push. For example... for all the young people (I'm 32) who "don't have money"... we also all have laptops, cell phones, iPods, spend money on TiVo and cable, go into debt in order to buy a round of drinks, covet widescreen TVs and buy $600 PS3s... it's not like we're incredibly careful with our money. It's just that we don't see why we should spend that SAME amount of money on ... a play.

Thanks for the post. For all you young'uns out there that want to give some music events a try, there are a whole boatload of cheap ticket programs available in this town. You can read all about it on my website, Feast of Music:

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About this blog From April 1 through June 9, 2008, weekly entries will be posted here by some of the performing arts community's top bloggers. This 10-week intensive blog will serve as a unique forum for digital debate and brainstorming, and both the entries and comments will be archived for use at the live NPAC sessions in June.  New entries will be posted every Monday morning. Please note: the views expressed in this blog represent those of the independent contributors and participants, not the National Performing Arts Convention.

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Recent Comments

Chris Casquilho commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: I'm growing concerned that blogs are promoting a non-existent set of generalities abo...

barton b commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: "it's not like we're incredibly careful with our money. It's just that we don't see w...

Robert commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: Thanks for writing. I think I'd like to challenge a few of your assumptions about aud...

freeman commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: I'm definitely playing devil's advocate here. I don't think it's possible for a reaso...

Jaime commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: freeman - I make clean-cut distinctions (and based largely on observation, personal e...

99 commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: Nice post. I wholeheartedly agree. Freeman, I think of lower ticket prices in terms ...

freeman commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: I absolutely agree that we need to do a lot more, including offering up ticket incent...

Pete Matthews commented on The Value of a Cheap Ticket: Thanks for the post. For all you young'uns out there that want to give some music eve...

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