Azuka Theatre’s season of pay-what-you-decide ticketing

What price art?

What is a night at the theatre worth to you? What if you could pay for tickets based on that opinion?

Azuka Theatre's pay-what-you-decide production of Moth was a success. (Photo by AustinArt.org)

Azuka Theatre is keeping up the momentum precipitated by their move to the Drake Theater this year by implementing a new “pay-what-you-decide” ticketing initiative for their entire 2016-17 season. This model places the power of pricing in Azuka’s audience’s hands.

An easy fix?

Inspired by the UK’s ARC Stockton Arts Center, they tried a trial run during last May’s production of Moth. After that success and a healthy grant from the Barra Foundation, the company was encouraged to expand the experiment.

Here’s how it works: audiences reserve seats, see the performance, then decide afterward if the experience warrants throwing some money Azuka’s way. No more subscriptions. No more hunting for discounted rates. It’s as simple as reserving a table for two at a restaurant (and arguably simpler than that).

With Hamilton tickets currently priced at $410 for nosebleed seats (don’t ask what you have to do for the good seats), Azuka’s policy is attractive. Hamilton has brought in droves of theatregoers and sparked an interest in those who might never have ventured to Broadway. But what about those who can’t afford a ticket? This is not the first time entire demographics have been shut out because of limited seats and impossible prices.

Pay-what-you-decide is Azuka’s solution. Azuka producing artistic director Kevin Glaccum says, “Now that you have the opportunity to pay what you decide based on your experience, this model eliminates the need for reduced price and discounted or tiered ticketing. It provides an equal opportunity for patrons from any financial background.” 

In good company

Other theatres, such as Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis and Cripple Creek Theatre Company in New Orleans have attempted similar ticketing strategies. While they have experienced some success, there are key differences between their programs and Azuka’s.

Mixed Blood offers a select number of free seats, but only for patrons willing to arrive two hours before the show. The rest of the tickets are priced at $20 to “guarantee” a reservation.

Cripple Creek’s productions are completely free, but company member Emilie Whelan admits that their financial model only allows them to produce one play per season (alongside nine months of community programming). Azuka’s policy is innovative; they will be the first company in America to produce a multi-play season in which all potential patrons have access to seating for the entire year.

Of course, pay-what-you-decide is a precarious endeavor. Azuka has loyal supporters who, it is hoped, will continue to pay the original ticket prices (or more). As for the rest, the company will depend upon the kindness of strangers. However, one flaw in the design is that Azuka won’t suggest donation prices, and those who are unfamiliar with the former cost of their tickets will remain in the dark when opening their wallets.

The company also produces several world premieres each year (this season will include plays by Jacqueline Goldfinger and Douglas Williams). While their programming is exciting and admirable, these plays and their popularity are untested. There is always the chance new audiences will walk out unsatisfied and withhold their contributions. And how will this strategy reach Philadelphians who don’t already have Azuka on their radar? It’s one thing to offer up more accessible theatre, but if the same theatregoers are the only ones taking advantage, where’s the progress?

Azuka has considered this too. They will engage in community outreach to connect with potential audiences. Glaccum says, “We’re in the process of contacting a variety of non-theatrical groups to let them know we’ve begun this ticketing process. Right now, we’re reaching out to museums, community arts organizations and neighborhood associations. We’ll reach out to as many Philadelphia schools as we can, both high schools and colleges.” This is where the new ticketing model becomes crucial.

Opening the doors

The policy will allow those who might be wary of a night at the theatre to try it out risk free. For people who can’t easily drop $20 on a ticket, it’s an open door to an experience that they never thought was meant for them.

Entire families can see a show together that no longer costs more than a movie with popcorn. No one has to take time out of their workday to wait for tickets that might run out before they reach the front of the line. A new population can experience the magic — yes, magic — of theater without sacrificing part of a much-needed paycheck. Important and necessary conversations about local and global issues can begin, and more people can join those conversations.

I want to believe in pay-what-you-decide; it’s cooking with possibility. But it’s hard not to be skeptical. We have been conditioned to assume this kind of idealistic model will fail. However, ARC Stockton Arts Centre’s triumph with the same ticketing strategy suggests promising results for Azuka and other theatre companies here in the states. If it worked across the pond, it could work here. I’m betting on Azuka.

The pay-what-you-decide initiative could be a vital first step in the much-needed effort towards inclusivity. And with other local theatre companies like Norristown’s Theatre Horizon dipping pinky toes into the same waters, it might not be long before post-show payment is the new norm.

You might not be able to get those tickets to Hamilton, but pay attention to what’s happening in Philadelphia. There’s a revolution happening here too. 

For Mark Cofta's review of Moth, click here.

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