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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