Post image for Pick Your Price

(This post was originally posted on Think It, Do It, Blog It as part of  The MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program. We’re cross-posting on the Circle to better highlight the work of our grantees.)

By Alan Berks, Director of Communications, Pillsbury House Theatre

We opened Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology this month. We’re three weeks into the run with two more to go.

For the purposes of this blog right now, the interesting thing about this play is that every ticket on every evening costs whatever the audience wants it to cost. Sometimes called “Pay What You Can” or “Pay What You Think It’s Worth,” We’re just telling people to pay whatever they want or “pick their price.” (This is a very common event at Minnesota theaters, and Pillsbury House has had a wildly successful Pay What You Can Every Wednesday night performance for years. No one here has ever tried All Pay What You Can, All the Time.)

The show has gotten stellar reviews and standing ovations, so it’s hard to assess exactly what effect this pricing gimmick has had on our attendance. Plus, we have gathered lots of information from patrons (surveys, addresses, etc.) that we will be analyzing carefully after the show closes. But lack of careful analysis has never stopped me from speculating in the past–where’s the fun in that?–so here are some preliminary observations and speculations:

1. The people who can only come to the theater when we offer this deal are incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I have a message on my phone from last week from a soft-spoken woman who sounded almost in tears as she thanked us for thinking about working poor families like hers. It almost makes me cry.

2. More people than I expected have paid either full price or more than full price. When we work in the theater, we probably know that people who are more well off and willing to donate are subsidizing the ticket prices for everyone else. I’m suddenly wondering whether audience members themselves know that. In this case, when it’s made obvious to them, a lot of people are willing to step up and pay for someone else. Simple, easy, heart-warming.

3. Ticket price is an important barrier to attendance but not the only one, by far. Preliminary results indicate that our attendance at this show has increased around 30% over previous productions first three weekends—which is great!— but we’re still not selling out every show (and we don’t have a super-huge house). I can’t even say for sure whether the large percentage increase is due to the ticket prices or the quality of the show—or even just the increased outreach efforts we’ve made. . . But, lest we look ungrateful, let me clearly state that a 30% increase is pretty phenomenal, we think.

4. Here’s the most surprising statistic so far—we’re seeing increases in revenue. We were able to take this risk because of funding we received as a result of Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment. We needed some hedge against the perfectly reasonable assumption that a good number of our customers would choose not to pay anything at all—which some of them do choose. Yet, somehow, instead, we’ve discovered that the average cost of a ticket has actually increased at least $1 per ticket. Go figure.

At the same time, we’re really using our increased audience to highlight, ever so gently, the arts integration that is happening throughout the building, and the response has been positive and intrigued. A good start.

This is one grant final report that will be easy to write—where making a potentially risky plan to increase audience and reach more deeply into the neighborhood is actually paying off not only financially but in many other hard to measure ways—ways that forge stronger bonds of appreciation and gratitude that go both ways between us and our fans and even new fans we didn’t know existed.

  • Lance Garrett

    We have noticed on our Pay-What-You-Can Nights, our general per-ticket revenue is up by almost 40%. Thank you for also giving other, more profound, reasons to continue this tradition.

  • David Denson

    This tactic may work in isolated instances, but there’s no way it could be successful as standard, long-term practice. For proof I point to the for-profit world – if they could make more money this way, they would’ve done it a long long time ago.

    TCG should really stop promoting these kinds of freak oddities as long-term solutions. De-valuing the work will never be our road to salvation and I feel sorry for any organization who builds their business model on depending on the random “kindness of strangers” that’s required to make these kinds of stunts work.

  • Fred Helsel

    David – how does sharing this story with others constitute TCG “promoting” it as a long term solution? Did we read the same blog because nowhere did I read that this was suggested as a new long term strategy that we all must try. If we only followed the examples of the For Profit world, what other wonderful and inventive ideas would we never discover? Kudos to TCG and Pilsbury House Theater for sharing their success story with us.

  • Matt Slaybaugh

    I’m the Artistic Director of Available Light Theatre in Columbus, OH. All our tickets have been “Pay What You Want” for every seat, every show, and everyone since 2008. Each year since then our audience has increased b by more than 100% (that’s not a typo) and our operating budget has increased by over 50% (EACH YEAR) so I’d say it’s working pretty well for us.

    We’re about to open a show, so I’ve gotta stop here, but I’d be glad to discuss this in more detail with anyone who’d like to hear about it.

  • Matt Slaybaugh

    I finally posted some more info and answered some questions about Available Light’s success with Pay What Thou Wilt (as someone on Facebook called it), in the form of a 14 minute video.