Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thought Experiment #1

I have been reading Daniel (Ishmael) Quinn's Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure, which puts into a non-fiction form some of the ideas addressed in his earlier novels. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to do a full discussion of Quinn's New Tribalism (for more info, go to, I will use some of his ideas over the next few posts to try to kick around how a different system for doing theatre might work. As I said,these will be thought experiments, so if you are inclined to comment that you "don't want to do X," please keep it to yourself -- nobody is going to make you do it. In fact, if all theatre people suddenly decided to sign on to one of these new ideas, it would probably be a bad thing. Nevertheless, what I'd like to ask my readers is to brainstorm with me on some of these topics. As you probably know, one of the first rules of brainstorming is that you don't say no to anything, you simply build on it. There will be lots of time to evaluate, but it needs to be done separately from the creative process. OK? Here goes.

As a starting point, let's begin with this from Quinn:

Old minds think: If it didn't work last year, let's do MORE of it this year.
New minds think: If it didn't work last year, let's do something ELSE this year.

Let's be new minds thinking, shall we? Let's leave the old meme behind, at least for a while. Instead of trying to tinker with the theatrical system to make it work "better" for us, let's just mentally walk away from it for the time being and consider alternatives and see what happens. And for our purposes, let's think of whatever we come up with in terms of a non-NYC environment of your choice. In other words, let's think in terms of places that are not awash in theatre, where perhaps the price of real estate is more reasonable, and the pool of people to draw our audience from is smaller.

The goal is to think of ways we can do the kind of theatre that inspires us and our audience, and do it in a way that might inspire a deeper connection between audience and artists, create a more viable financial model for the artist, and disconnect theatre from the marketplace in the minds of the audience.

OK, let's start with a little piece that is nonetheless crucial to the way we offer theatre. And remember, we're brainstorming, so no squashing ideas, but feel free to offer ideas of your own.

Old minds think: We must sell more tickets than we did last year.
New minds think: What if we didn't sell tickets at all?

OK, so the thought experiment is: if we didn't sell tickets to a performance (or a season), how might we survive as artists? One caveat: whatever ideas we generate don't necessarily have to provide a 100% living income for everyone involved in the project (as it is, many, many small productions lose money and pay those involved almost nothing). The idea simply needs to bring in something that helps the company to live.

I'm going to offer a few ideas as starting points, and then I hope that others will throw in ideas of their own in the comments section.

Instead of selling tickets, what if a production company:
  • Sold memberships to a theatre club that offered free attendance as part of the membership. You could come as often as you like, and bring guests -- sort of like a country club.
  • Asked audience members to bring food that would be distributed to the company members in exchange for the performance.
  • Had a pre-show potluck dinner for company and audience.
  • Bartered for items needed by the company -- a list of items would be provided in the program.
  • Asked willing audience members to "adopt" a company member for a day, providing them with food (and shelter?).
These seem kind of tame -- I hope you can do better. Other ideas?


Malachy Walsh said...

There's a theatre company that says, if you come to the show once, you come back for free as often as you like as long as you bring a friend who hasn't seen the show.

That's innovative.

parabasis said...

Scott-- you're familiar with the Barter Theater, VA, right?

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- I had forgotten about the history of Barter Theatre. From it's website "history" link:

Imagine a live hog or a dead rattlesnake for the price of admission. We are a theatre of curiosity. And endurance.

During the Depression, Robert Porterfield, an enterprising young actor, returned to his native Southwest Virginia with an extraordinary proposition: Bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the region to gain admission to see a play.

So on June 10, 1933, Barter Theatre opened its doors, making Barter Theatre one of the oldest professional theatres in the nation. Proclaiming "With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh." The price of admission was 40 cents or the equivalent of produce. About 80 percent of the Depression-era audience paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock.

The actors performing at the building were distracted not only by the occasional squealing pig or clucking hen, but noise from the town jail, which was located directly beneath the stage. The jail space was later used as a holding area for dogs suspected of rabies. It was eventually converted into dressing rooms for Barter actors. To the surprise of many, all the seats for the first show were filled. The concept of trading "ham for Hamlet" caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.

Today, at least one performance a year celebrates the Barter heritage by accepting donations for an area food bank.

Thanks for the reminder, Isaac!

Scott Walters said...

Malachy -- I've heard of that policy, which I think is a great way to get "sneezers" (see Seth Godin's Unleashing the Ideavirus and Purple Cow for applications to marketing) working for your theatre. Thanks, Malachy!

Praxis Theatre said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Praxis Theatre said...

What if tickets cost just $2 each, but you had to buy them in booklets of ten? So for $20 you get to bring nine friends to the theatre. Could be a good way of getting attendence up and building buzz.


(sorry about above deletion - had to fix a typo)

Scott Walters said...

Ian -- yes! Seth Godin did that with Purple Cow, but he did it for a limited time. Then, once word was on the street, he sold his books for normal price. Result: bestseller.

If you had a multi-week run, why not do this for the first week, and sell those booklets of ten to charities, who could resell the tickets for regular price as a fundraiser. Result: sellout houses for first performances, increased word of mouth, community goodwill. And no extra work for you -- it is all done for you!

Praxis Theatre said...


nick said...

We usually forget that first definition of commerce is all about what we’re all about. So nothing wrong, and everything right in any interchange that happens, it’s just that box office is the most mundane.

1 : social intercourse : interchange of ideas, opinions, or sentiments
2 : the exchange or buying and selling of commodities on a large scale involving transportation from place to place

The first and third definition highlighted in this art project.

Untitled, 2003 was initiated in 2002 when Andrea Fraser approached Friedrich Petzel Gallery to arrange a commission with a private collector on her behalf. The requirements for the commission were to include a sexual encounter between Fraser and a collector, which would be recorded on videotape, with the first exemplar of the edition going to the participating collector. The resulting videotape is a silent, unedited, sixty-minute document shot in a hotel room with a stationary camera and existing lighting.

Untitled is a continuation of Fraser's twenty-year examination of the relationships between artists and their patrons. Known for her performances in the form of gallery tours and analyses of collecting by museums, corporate art institutions, and private collectors, Untitled shifts the focus of this investigation from the social and economic conditions of art to a much more personal terrain. The work raises issues regarding the ethical and consensual terms of interpersonal relationships as well as the contractual terms of economic exchange.

I often work at Coney Island USA. As half-carnie, I’ve always enjoyed the notion of “scam” next to or part the art form. So selling little snake oil to make ends meet is fine with me. The gift shop at Coney makes some items into collectables, art objects, and "packages." The ad copy for these products is creative and full of hype, as is the Sideshow that it helps support.

I love commerce. It’s part and parcel of the creative act of theatre.

Malachy Walsh said...

Godin's marketing strategy is a form of "loss leader".

I did this with the first show I produced in SF.

On Thursdays, the first night in any weekly run, the price of admission was "2 for 1". Not 1/2 price.

It usually doubled the number of people who came and we always sold out on Thursdays.

When people heard is was sold out on Thursdays, it made them more anxious and likely to buy a Friday or Saturday ticket at full price.

Tony said...

One thing that's standard in Chicago is to have industry nights, often on thursdays and sundays. You get discounted tickets with a headshot and resume. In a city where it's not standard practice, it may be a great addition.

I was actually suprised when a friend told me most cities don't have them.

Jamespeak said...

Re: Malachy's first comment - That's kind of Nosedive's unwritten policy. People who come see a show the second time 'round get in for free. It seems to work.