As the pandemic pause put production activity on hold, theatres took the opportunity to reassess their commitments. For some, that means making theatre more accessible than ever, including how much it costs to get in the door.
Professionally staged theatre around Seattle has long been a relatively exclusive space. Live productions cost a lot of money to make, and theatre venues have a finite number of seats. The action of going to the theatre also tends to have a certain high-brow aura around it.
Put those together, and it’s a recipe for exclusivity that self-perpetuates: only certain people can afford the theatre; only certain people go to the theatre. And then the ingrained message: only certain people belong at the theatre.
That structure is beginning to shift. The long pandemic reset shook up a lot of things, but one surprising outcome — with unexpected timing as organizations felt the financial strain of having no live audiences — is that more theatres than ever are opening up their doors to would-be audience members, regardless of ability to pay the standard ticket price.
Why Add Barriers?
Prior to the pandemic, nearly all theatre companies limited financial flexibility in admissions either to certain nights or certain groups.
Pay-what-you-choose (PWYC) previews — showings before the production is fully set — were one approach; dedicated PWYC dates (often off-nights added to the usual peak show nights) were another. Historically, most theatres have also offered lower rates throughout the run to certain people for the exact same seat, whether based on age (seniors, children, teens through TeenTix, and occasionally young adults), or certain other classifications (students, theatre industry members, veterans, and occasionally by employer, industry, or even geographic location).
It’s flexibility, with strings attached. But more theatre organizations are beginning to challenge that mold.
ArtsWest was among the theatre organizations that had taken those approaches, with a PWYC preview night and by offering deep discounts to specific groups of people, including theatre industry members. But eventually it began to ask itself — why?
Observed Laura Lee, ArtsWest’s Managing Director, the act of carving out a specific night to make a show financially accessible merely added another barrier — that of scheduling — to those already pressed for financial resources. “Why, if pricing is a barrier to seeing a play here, should folx then have to come on the night we dictate, as opposed to that option being available every performance? The answer was clear in that folx shouldn’t have to have that added barrier, pricing and now a specific scheduled night.”
The theatre has responded by offering a new sliding-scale system, with four different price points available to all; the choice of what to pay is up to the buyer alone. The lowest price of $15 ($18.50 with online ticketing fees), available now to all for all productions at ArtsWest, is about the same as the deep discount it long offered to theatre industry members; the highest price point (labeled “champion”) is akin to a donor level that helps champion more accessible tickets. Every ticket at every price comes with the same ability to choose any date to attend, and any seat in the house.
Pandemic as an Impetus
The “pandemic pause” — during which most arts organizations had to put their live performance plans on an indefinite hold — helped drive the momentum in two important ways: it ushered in extra time and motivation for companies to reflect on their values and operations; and, out of necessity, it offered them a way to experiment with their methods of delivery to audiences.
Some Time to Assess — And Reset
As the pandemic shut down live performance and protests of racial injustice swept the country, most local theatres took the opportunity to do some reckoning with their values, missions, and operations. For many, a burgeoning commitment to pursuing racial justice also brought about a review of their values regarding equity in general, including who they welcome into the theatre and how.
For some, this was not a new idea, but rather a more focused push to work on questions they had already been asking.
Seattle Public Theater’s Managing Director, Charlotte Tiencken, explains the progression that the theatre’s board and staff took as they examined the strategic plan and long-term vision. “Our new mission is: ‘Embracing historically excluded identities and emerging artists, Seattle Public Theater produces compelling work that sparks conversation and ignites empathy.'” Goals that emerged from those assessments include working to become an Anti-Racist Theatre and, alongside it, to become more accessible “in every way — from the moment someone enters the theatre to the moment they leave.” For SPT, that approach includes making flexible ticket pricing available to all, “so that anyone can come to the theatre. We don’t want to turn anyone away because of their lack of ability to pay.”
Lee, of ArtsWest, described a similar holistic emphasis. “For us, we had been working pre-pandemic and then during the shuttering, to question what processes we have in play that are limiting accessibility to ArtsWest, for all our community — patrons, artists, volunteers, staff, donors, etc.”
Seattle Rep, among the region’s largest and longest-running theatre companies, had recently implemented one of the area’s most expansive PWYC programs before the pandemic. It has now expanded that to include PWYC tickets at all performances. Explained Michelle Haines, Seattle Rep’s Chief Marketing Officer, “We started this program before the pandemic as a part of a commitment to broadening our reach and deepening our impact throughout the community and saw immediate growth in engaging previously under-invited audiences when we offered Pay What You Choose (PWYC) performances to select performances. … As we prepared to reopen, it felt like an opportunity to be more expansive with the program by opening it up to all performances to create more access to the PWYC program.”
Prior to the pandemic’s onset, Intiman Theatre made a big splash when it took a different approach: joining theatres like Kent’s Theatre Battery, it did away with user-based costs (ticket prices) altogether, and relied only on other sources of funds (private donors, grants, etc.) to fund its work. It has since changed its approach to include a mix of traditional ticketing, sliding scale, and free tickets; alongside the “Inti-Club,” a membership group of dedicated donors that also uses a sliding-scale approach, with the same benefits at all levels. Explains Wesley Frugé, Intiman’s Development and Communications Director, the aim is to “create a welcoming program that would allow people to support the theatre at a level that works for them.”
Over the years, MAP Theatre, based at Seattle’s 18th and Union, has maintained a consistent approach. Dating back almost to its founding, the theatre has offered PWYC tickets for every person, every seat, every show. Explained Producing Director Peggy Gannon, “MAP Theatre instituted a choose-your-own-price ticketing model back in 2013 on our second show (Soft Click of a Switch). I’ve been proselytizing about it ever since to anyone who will listen. Above all, it was a mission- and values-based choice; we believe art should be accessible to anyone who chooses to interact with it.”
For Sound Theatre Company, offering financially accessible tickets is also core to the company’s identity, and began before the pandemic’s onset. Teresa Thuman, the theatre’s founder and Co-Artistic Director, contends that being financially accessible allows the theatre to take artistic risks, in a way that lowers the barriers to entry and encourages audience members to be more daring along with them. On a broader scale, observes Thuman, that accessibility also “begins to dismantle the perception (and often the reality) that art is only for the wealthy.”
The Virtual Realm and Space to Experiment
For all that many of us have reached the point of “Zoom fatigue” (perhaps long ago), the shift to the virtual environment has brought certain benefits in theatre viewing capabilities. One of them relates to distance, of course: it’s been far easier for people to see performances produced on stages far away. But another involves capacity and scarcity.
In the physical realm, a theatre’s seats are finite resources; and the price point they establish dictates both how many will see the show and how the math works out once the run is over. From a strictly economic standpoint, the seller’s sweet spot is where full houses (maximum demand) and the highest price per unit intersect. That’s also why same-day rush tickets have long been popular box office devices: the discounts are applied to seats that would otherwise generate no revenue at that performance.
The move to virtual changed that dynamic completely. As the possibilities for audience and delivery experience morphed suddenly, theatres were forced to experiment; and as capacity for a given show became totally untethered to the number of physical seats for that audience, an experiment with delivery format presented a more ready opportunity to apply it to pricing as well.
It makes sense, then, that some theatres’ forays into expansive flexible pricing models began with the performances they delivered online.
When the pandemic shuttered its just-about-to-open production (The Fifth Wave, on now at last, at West of Lenin), Macha Theatre Works pivoted to what became a long, robust series of different women’s stories, told in a unique 17-minute format. The theatre offered several pricing options for each installment of the series, called 17 Minute Stories, and let viewers choose how much to pay.
What they found was that, for an identical viewing experience, viewers wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward the lowest price; instead, they were choosing from various price points based on what made most sense for them. “We had some folks paying $50 to watch a 17-minute show!” reflects Producing Artistic Director Amy Poisson, an indicator that the company’s viewers, at least of the online format, comprised “an economically diverse audience.” It was a system the company determined it would keep in place once it returned to in-person shows. Explains Poisson, “We wanted everyone to see our shows and didn’t want to undervalue our work. So we added a high and low priced ticket for ALL shows.”
Seattle Public Theater and ArtsWest likewise were happy to test out sliding-scale pricing when the pandemic necessitated online viewing. Both found the approaches were successful, and transitioned them to other shows when they returned to in-person performances. Described Lee, of ArtsWest, “The pandemic allowed us to test the model with our online version of A Very Merry Kraken Tea Party. It was the first time for us that we put the pay-what-you-will model in play and it worked great! It then made sense to just roll it out for all single tickets this season. It’s still working great!”
Where Things Stand
While the companies vary somewhat in how they’re putting their financially accessible structures into motion, each has reported promising results so far — with tickets reaching new audiences, and other ticket buyers stepping up to assist in the bottom line.
Who’s Doing What
Of the theatre companies who have already returned to the stage, seven of them now provide pay-what-you-choose (PWYC) or sliding-scale ticketing options, offered for all performances, to all attendees:
18th and Union: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points for all attendees. 18th and Union is located at the edge of the Central District and Capitol Hill; you can guess the intersection.
ArtsWest: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points ($18.50 minimum online, $15 minimum in-person) for all attendees. ArtsWest is located in West Seattle, at the Junction.
Dacha Theatre: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points ($3 minimum online) for all attendees. Dacha performs at various venues.
Intiman Theatre: Minimum of 20 free tickets are offered at the door for every performance, beginning an hour before showtime. Members of the Inti-Club, which is also offered at several price points ($8 to $98 monthly donation) with the same benefits at all levels, get front-of-line access to these free tickets. Intiman is based on Capitol Hill, at Seattle Central College.
Macha Theatre Works: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points ($11 minimum online, $10 minimum in-person) for all attendees. Macha is based in Fremont, at West of Lenin.
Seattle Public Theater: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points ($5 minimum) for all attendees. SPT is located at Green Lake.
Seattle Rep: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered on a pay-what-you-choose basis over the phone ($5 minimum) and in-person ($1 minimum). The Rep is located at the Seattle Center (Mercer St. side).
In addition, three theatre companies with productions scheduled for later this year have long offered PWYC or sliding-scale ticketing options, available to any seat and any attendee, for all of their shows.
MAP Theatre: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered on a pay-what-you-choose basis ($5 minimum). MAP Theatre is based at 18th and Union. (Production scheduled for fall 2022, TBA; past productions include ‘Trevor‘)
Radial Theater Project: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points for all attendees; free tickets also available upon request, with no one turned away for lack of funds. Radial Theater is based at 18th and Union. (Production of ‘1984’ scheduled for March 2022)
Sound Theatre Company: Tickets for any seat, any show, are offered at various price points ($5 minimum) for all attendees. Sound Theatre performs at various venues. (Production of ‘Gaslight’ scheduled for April 2022; past productions include ‘Reparations’, ‘Citizen‘ and ‘Peeling‘)
Three additional companies, Akropolis Performance Lab (based in Lake Forest Park), Parley (in Seattle) and Theatre Battery (in Kent), have not yet resumed productions but were early adopters of financially accessible pricing. There are likely others present and past, including the dearly departed Pocket Theater (formerly in north Seattle). And individual artists, too, are promoting accessibility; for her current series at Cafe Nordo, Sara Porkalob made a point of offering batches of reduced-price “community tickets” available for every performance of the (now sold-out) run.
How It’s Going
What Macha discovered with its online 17 Minute Stories audience is what other theatres have largely reported with their in-person audiences as well. Many of those attendees who are financially positioned to pay more do in fact pay more; by inference, they do so because they want to champion the theatre’s work and are able to do so in that way. The more accessible price points, meanwhile, have allowed larger audiences to see the performances.
ArtsWest followed a similar progression: instituting financially accessible price points with a production delivered online, finding it worked well, and continuing it with the in-person productions. The experiment, Lee says, has continued to be a successful one. “We have folx buying at all our four pricing levels, with the majority buying at the regular priced ticket, but also folx buying at the inclusion rate and champion rate. Our average ticket price has gone up, for those that crunch numbers, and we have more folx coming now that may have had pricing as a barrier, and they are coming to the performance that works the best for them.”
Sound Theatre, too, has found that its average ticket price has increased since it began offering sliding-scale tickets in 2018. The company also found that the voluntary higher price points provide it with some helpful information toward development. Notes Thuman, “We have a group of patrons who have self-identified that they may have more capacity and willingness to support” the organization’s initiatives in a financial way.
Seattle Rep’s audience overall has not shifted back yet to pre-pandemic numbers, but they view the pre-pandemic experience as a positive sign of what’s to come. As Haines explains, following a pandemic surge earlier this month, “We have only just begun our season and in the rise of Omicron, so our program has seen some impact from that surge, but we expect as we move forward for the program to pick up to the successful levels we saw prior to the pandemic and look forward to creating more opportunities for people to access theater.”
Gannon, from MAP, speaks from a long history with PWYC pricing; the theatre encountered plenty of skepticism when it rolled out the bold proposal of allowing audience members to choose their own price. Despite firmly believing in the model, Gannon acknowledges, “It made me so anxious to launch it; it seemed bananas and against all logic. And here’s what happened: Our ‘per butt in seat’ average went UP compared to a static price across the board, and it has continued to rise every show we’ve produced.”
MAP is a resident theatre company at the arts organization 18th and Union, where Gannon recently became Producing Director; that organization has offered sliding-scale tickets since it was founded in 2016. Gannon confirmed the approach has worked there as well. “I’d estimate that 1/4 to 1/3 of folks choose the highest tier, which makes the lower tiers viable. This model works. Firstly, it allows folks to attend theatre within their own budget and price point. Secondly, it proves that many people will pay more when they can. I can’t even express what comfort and hope that brings me to trust the generosity of our audience.”
Rachel Delmar, Marketing and Communications Director for Seattle Public Theater, is similarly heartened by the experience so far. Delmar advocated adopting sliding-scale ticket prices to promote accessibility and because of positive experiences with it in the past. “So far, with two shows under our belt, it seems to be working out like we hoped, with the higher tiers balancing out the lower tiers. Which is exciting to see and restores a bit of my trust in humanity.”
Intiman Theatre has likewise seen a balance of payment levels, both for individual tickets and for ongoing donations in the Inti-Club. The different dollar amounts, reminds Frugé, don’t signal disparate levels of commitment to the theatre’s value. “What we know about America is that $8 to one person might have exactly the same significance as $98 to someone else. We are grateful to every member of the Inti-Club, at every level.”
Want to Find More?
NWTheatre lists free, pay-what-you-choose, and sliding-scale performances on its robust Performance Calendar in two ways:
Free and PWYC (under Categories): this means the event is either completely free or has a sliding scale that begins at around $5.
Sliding Scale and PWYC (under Tags): this includes the above performances, plus those offered at various price points (such as a sliding scale that starts at $15) that are made available equally to all attendees.
In addition to the companies detailed above, who offer production-wide flexible pricing models, many companies offer more limited options. Some have designated PWYC dates, whether to several performances (such as Harlequin Productions in Olympia does, with its recently expanded PWYC program among other discounted options); a specific night of the week during the run (such as Lakewood Playhouse in the South Sound and Valley Center Stage in North Bend both do on Thursdays); a single PWYC performance during the run (such as Tacoma Little Theatre in the South Sound and Taproot Theatre in north Seattle do); or a PWYC preview. When known, all of these dates are categorized/tagged as such on the Calendar.
Theatre companies who would like to expand their financially accessible ticketing options should feel free to contact NWTheatre (contact info here) in order to provide accessibility information, and to continue the conversation with fellow theatre companies.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.