Theatre world discussion of “living wage” misses much more important issue: raising ticket prices

There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the theatre world about earning a “living wage” recently. The 99 seat battle with Equity in Los Angeles got the issue up in the air again.

As is so often the case with theatre people (and unions), when the topic is how to spend more money, there’s no shortage of input and demands.

But when the subject turns to how to generate more revenue or make more profit, how to make products people want enough to pay for, the airwaves go strangely silent.

The owner mentality is: I’m responsible for every aspect of the business, and if everything goes well I might make some money. When you’re an owner, you care WTF you’re doing – because it’s your money at risk.

The employee mentality is: I just work here. I cash the checks and whether or not the larger business is profitable and healthy doesn’t really concern me. All I know is I’m worth x. Employees are cheap.

In the theatre world, producers wear the owner hat. They take the risk, they make it happen. Anyone who has not been a producer and thinks it’s easy should try it out sometime. Try to put on a show and make some money.

When it comes to theatre wages, it’s the easiest thing in the world to squawk about a “living wage”. The trick is how to generate one, i.e., how to create work on stage that compels the audience to pay its costs. It is only when products sell and succeed that profit is created that can be shared with those involved.

So here’s a little mind game to understand just how easy (or hard) it is to provide a living wage.

How about committing to at least not selling tickets for anything less than the living wage? Let’s say you believe a living wage should be $15. If so, you should at least never sell a ticket for less than that.

Sounds easy right?

If it were easy to sell tickets to theatre, presumably everybody (or at least somebody) would be doing it. But if you watch Goldstar, the deep discounter where shows go to die, you know that plays on Portland’s largest stages routinely go for $20, $12, even the outright absurdity of $8.

Why is that?

Because no one wants the product on offer.

This predicament is one the theatre world has brought upon itself. After years and years of creating product no one wants and then discounting ticket prices to near 0 in the mistaken belief that the reason people are not coming to the theatre is because prices are too high, the theatre has walled itself into a ghetto of low prices. Theatres have trained the audience to think that theatre is worth no more than $8. And now that is all they will pay.

The task of digging out of this hole will not be easy. First, quality and ticket prices need to go way, way up. Unless your theatre company is simply the adult equivalent of children’s summer theatre camp – a place for actors to go to have something to do to fill the day – it’s time to get real.

If you cannot sell a main stage show for more than $8 – do not put the show on. You are underpricing the entire industry. If you feel that the world has been waiting for your great theatre company idea that will now at last be born – ask then why they will only pay $8 for it.

If you see a theatre selling tickets for $8, go ask them why. Ask them why they are practically giving tickets away when the cost of putting on the show is much higher. Don’t they care about living wages for their staff? The answer you will get is the same answer to the question: Why can’t I earn a living wage in the theatre?

Why can’t I sell tickets for more than $8? Because no one wants the product.

Why can’t I earn a living wage in the theatre? Same answer.

For every theatre going on about their desire to provide artists a living wage – start first with providing a living ticket price. Create quality people will pay for. Once you can do that, then focus on increasing wages.

There is no future (other than as an obscure charity case kept alive only by grants and zillionaire donors) for an industry that cannot create a product worth more than $8.

Forget a living wage. Worry about a living ticket price.