Tag Archives: economy

Open Letter to The Boston Globe’s Alex Beam regarding “Downturn’s upside”

Dear Mr. Beam:

Your March 31, 2008 column, “Downturn’s upside” was disappointing.  It was clever, but it wasn’t funny and it misses the mark.

In your first paragraph, you aim directly at the Huntington Theatre Company and, by proxy, the entire Boston arts community by suggesting that attending the arts is an “obligation from which the recession has officially freed us”.   There are many among us who would, not so cleverly, disagree.  Theatre enriches our lives, brings us joy, pushes us to examine life’s dilemmas, and sustains us through difficult times.

What you’ve done in that paragraph is what marketing staffs for any arts organization do: Find pull quotes to promote the performance.  In the very same sentence that you claim to love the Huntington, you tip the scales by highlighting negative quotes from reviews:

The Huntington Theatre called the other day, trying to interest me in Richard Goodwin’s fabulous new play, “Two Men of Florence.” (“Dense speeches, stock characters, and heavy-handed displays of stagecraft” – Globe reviewer Louise Kennedy.) I love the Huntington, and who doesn’t want to spend a couple of hours watching “good actors . . . wasted on caricatured cameos” (Carolyn Clay in the Phoenix). But I had to say no. It’s the recession, you see.

Curiously, the online version of your article has no links to the reviews which would provide easy access to the whole story, or more importantly the context.  In this world of abbreviated thoughts and truncated communication, context still counts for something.

We are in a recession; individuals, families, and nonprofit organizations are hurting.  Theatre Communications Group recently released the results of a phone survey (“The New Normal” pdf) reporting that “[v]irtually every” one of the 495 theatres questioned will be cutting their operating budgets by between 5 and 30 percent.  Furthermore, theatres with an endowment or an invested cash reserve are reporting losses of between 15 and 30 percent.  This is not an easy time for any nonprofit theatre company.  Everyone is sacrificing; some of necessity more than others.  Theatre may be a luxury in hard times.  And all theatre is not created equal, or as Hamlet said of the players “they imitated humanity so abominably.”  But even with shortcomings, as every school child knows, “the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The recession has not “freed” anyone from their “obligation to attend the theatre”; it has made it more relevant to go, to explore the human experience from the safety of a dark room in a cushy chair, occasionally not so comfortable.

Leave the reviews for those who actually saw the performance.  Reading the New York Review of Books, instead of the book only counts at cocktail parties.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Peterson
Somerville, MA

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What is Theatre Worth?

We’ve all seen those MasterCard “Priceless” commercials right?

What about theatre?

Many theatres in the Boston area have instituted a “Pay What You Can” model for a limited number of performances.  Most of the time I’ve heard these programs referred to as a “gimmick” to fill seats rather than responding to the criticisms that theatre is only for the affluent.  While a staff member at theatres in Boston, I would see these free ticket offers and would know what it meant: The theatre needed an audience.  These offers are distributed with the intent to pad the audience, making the theater not feel so empty for everybody involved—the performers and audience.  It’s especially important for comedies where smaller audiences may not be as bold to laugh-out-loud which, of course, energizes and invigorates the performers.

Instead of free tickets or the traditional models, the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena has been doing something different—a “Pay What It’s Worth” performance.  However, according to a LATimes.com blog post, they found they were losing money.

Boston Court’s “Pay What It’s Worth” performance worked like this:  When entering the theater, audience members were given an empty envelope.  Upon their exit, they would give the envelope to a staff member with what they believed to be what the performance they had just attended was worth.

This program’s structure allowed the company to track their average yield per seat.  They could find out if the program was successful in being economically viable for the theatre and if it was bringing in a new, more economically diverse audience.  I suspect the goals of the program were filling the theatre for lightly sold performances while, at the same time, making a ticket to the performance available to the widest economic demographic as possible.

The program appears have been fairly successful for a while.  However, the yield per seat did not differ much from the “Pay What You Can” programs they had in the past.  But, what is significant (and they are talking about it publicly) is that the Boston Court started seeing more and more envelopes return empty.  And, this started happening before the economic downturn last fall.  As a result, the Boston Court eliminated the program, replacing it with a $5 ticket.

Had the program run its course and patrons started taking for granted that they could attend a performance for next to nothing if they so desired?  In the Boston Court’s program, there was a certain level of anonymity in returning an empty envelope because the patron didn’t have to look the artists in the eyes and let them know they weren’t valuing the production financially.

Are we seeing a level of income elasticity?  If a theatre patron is making money, do they attribute a higher value to the experience than when they aren’t thus increasing the demand?  Is it a matter of the prioritization of leisure activities?

Or, did this foreshadow  that when the economy starts to go bad, people value theatre less?

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