A while back on #2amt, an extremely provocative gauntlet was thrown, on the OH so touchy subject of money. Filthy lucre. We can’t live without it. Most of us got into the theater profession to avoid having to think about it too much.

Yet as some point we all are faced with the task of assigning an actual monetary value to our art. Worse, we must then publicly announce it.


This particular gauntlet was thrown over the subject of pricing.

NO theater, @TheNineChicago insisted, should ever charge more than $20 a ticket for their work.

The argument being that, in order to grow audiences and make theater more ubiquitous (thereby eventually TAKING OVER THE WORLD), we must first make it something the average non-theater goer would find affordable on a weekly basis. There’s some logic to this- it could be argued that movies became ubiquitous as creators of popular culture in part because a schoolkid could skip school once a week and spend their nickel allowance to escape into the latest John Wayne fantasy.

Of course you could also argue that movies have been subsidized by the fantastic global distribution system unique to that artistic medium. And that if, let’s say, the Academy-Award winning film Precious, based on the Novel Push were only to play for 6 weeks in one 150 seat theater, then the producers of that film would either GLEEFULLY charge a couple thousand dollars a ticket or not produce the thing at all. Would they sell any tickets doing that? Good question.

How do we decide what’s worth the money?

I’ll pay $200 for a center section Modest Mouse ticket but I wouldn’t go to a Taylor Swift concert if it was FREE. Every year I spend $1500 to go to the middle of a desert for a week and eat food out of a tin while staring at men in tutus. I won’t spend $30 to go to the dentist (despite the subsidy of my excellent dental insurance). And I have paid to see terrible shows my friends are in and insisted on comps to shows with Academy-Award winning stars in them. $100 in bourbon at the bar? Sure. Next round’s on me. Renew that $35 Theater Service org membership? Just not sure I can afford it.

Here’s the thing. Pricing is COMPLETELY ILLOGICAL. How we assign prices is illogical. And what people will pay for is also fairly illogical.

The truth is, the way we price our performances is more about our own emotions- our fears, our egos, our self worth, and our stereotypes about our imagined audience than it is about any kind of market value. Often our prices are primarily designed to keep our box office staff from having an uncomfortable conversation:

“Hello, sir. Will you please pay me more for this ticket I’m selling you than I will be paid for this entire day’s work? Thanks so much.”

“Ma’am, if you change your tickets from Tuesday to Friday night, I have to charge you $20 more.”

Or from knowing an uncomfortable fact:

“I’m sorry sir, if you’d called last week, these tickets would have been $10 cheaper.”

Or, my favorite, “If you just wait until one hour to curtain, I can give you these tickets at half-price.”

Here’s a small sampling of the ridiculous things we secretly believe about our ticket prices (do me a favor and make a note of which ones you subscribe to):

1. If the tickets were FREE we would sell out the house.

2. A half-full house of patrons who paid $60 each is less impressive than a full house of people who lined up around the corner to buy $10 tickets at ten minutes to showtime.

3. Our single ticket buyers keep track of what we charged for last year’s (or last month’s) shows, and will strenuously object if the ticket price for this show is different.

4. Our patrons are just like us- they value experiences and spend money the same way, and for the same reasons, our friends and colleagues do. (We better hope this is not true, because we all mostly get comped into shows, don’t we?)

5. Our house is too small for our patrons to care where they end up sitting (or to be willing to pay more for a better seat).

6. And my personal favorite: The patron I’m selling this ticket to will sit down in the theater and ask the person sitting next to them, “So. What did you pay for your tickets?” And then race to the box office to demand a refund if they paid more than their neighbor.

Every single one of these assumptions is demonstrably untrue. How many “free” performances have you been to with empty houses? How many $10 performances have had only your personal friends in the house? How many general admission shows in tiny houses have had people lining up for the same four “great” seats? How many people have paid nearly $100 to see a performance of The 39 Steps around the country, despite the fact that they could rent the original movie for about $3? And when have you EVER asked the person next to you what they paid for their seat?

So. Here’s an experiment. Choose the assumption from the above list that you are most firmly attached to/afraid of. Now throw it out the window, and approach the pricing of your next show without it.

What does that look like? What new freedom do you have to price things for maximum revenue (which, remember, will go to pay the artists who did all that hard creative work in the first place)?

I tell you what I’ll do. We’re going to tackle each one of those assumptions one blog post at a time. And explore some potential pricing strategies you could try if you weren’t bound by that assumption. You with me? Stay tuned.

  • March 25, 2010
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