With Thespionage, pay what you want’ doesn’t equal bankruptcy

2 minute read
A scene from 'Upper Middle Class White.' Photo by Kristann Marita.
A scene from 'Upper Middle Class White.' Photo by Kristann Marita.

Get big fast. It’s the motto for Amazon and most other tech start-ups, but it could also apply to Thespionage — Philadelphia’s first pay-what-you-want theater company. Thespionage sees the benefits of an aggressive web presence backing their controversial business model: a combination that is yielding unexpected success.

Emily Orton Bonner manifests the free-wheeling, frenetic energy behind Thespionage. After spending time in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, she finally landed in Philadelphia — a city without a pay-what-you-want theater company. An idea formed. A talk with her best friend Andrew Deitch started the process, and a round of open calls scrounged up eight like-minded artists.

Most pay-what-you-want theater groups settle on the royalty-free classics of yesteryear like Hamlet or Oedipus Rex. But Thespionage wants to showcase local writers. Collecting and amplifying the area’s talent is a mission for the troupe, so they began with a play by one of their own: Bonner’s Upper Middle Class White, which premiered in May (read the Phindie review here).

Upper Middle Class White is about a young suburbanite moving into his dream home. Absolutely everything is great, until his girlfriend leaves him for a magician, and a group of squatters in the house decide to kidnap the homeowner instead of exiting peacefully.

The show proved a success that soon migrated onto the group’s Facebook page.

“Technology is an awesome bridge between [Thespionage] and the public,” says Bonner. She remembers their Facebook page blowing up after the show; the group quickly capitalized on this web success.

“We’re not afraid of the Internet. We’re on it constantly. It’s where most of our fanbase comes from,” she adds. They’re also on Instagram, with plans to redo their own existing website.

Thespionage’s Internet presence, though, is much more than a series of drab press releases and sterile notifications. Updates are personable, intimate, and give audiences a sense of who these actors are as people. You can see them behind-the-scenes, working on shows, or just screwing around with their friends.

And their open call for submissions makes them a writer’s hero. Go on their website right now and submit a script, and an actual human being will read it regardless of your resume. It is a close, connected experience at a time when media conglomerates like Comcast and Disney never felt more lucrative, more monolithic, or more distant.

Next up, you can see Thespionage at Voyeur Nightclub on August 3, 10, and 17. Look for the group’s Facebook updates, and keep an eye out for “Are You Afraid of the Bar” this October, which will “spin” fans’ own scary stories into “RAD mini-plays” that will appear in bars across the city. Other projects in the works include 10-minute play competitions and more. For more information, visit the Thespionage website.

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