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.

The high cost of low ticket prices | How not to market your show on Goldstar

How to tell the world that there's no demand for a show.  Put the entire four week run on sale for practically nothing weeks prior to the first preview.
How to tell the world that there’s no demand for a show. Put the entire four week run on sale for practically nothing weeks prior to the first preview.

Sales and marketing, the discipline that results in (it is hoped) purchase of actual tickets by audience members (it does happen, ya know), is an art equal in complexity and importance to the better known aspects of putting on a show like directing and acting.

Marketing is actually MORE important, because it’s harder to get an audience to turn out than it is to create a compelling piece of drama on stage. The real art form, then, is not theatre itself – it’s cultivating and attracting an audience.

The psychology of selling tickets is a big topic, and there’s a lot to it. People like to get a deal, but they also don’t want to miss out on what’s popular. Along that knife edge of desire and fear they tiptoe. If you pay full freight for a ticket only to see a half off sale soon after, you feel like a dolt. But if you hold your bluff too long waiting for a better offer and you’re wrong and the show sells out and everyone else sees it – then you’re really screwed.

Meanwhile, theatres want to fill seats, because an empty room looks HORRIBLE. And even as the relationship between ticket sales and theatre budgets grows more tenuous for smaller theatres, and some of them seemingly abandon ticket sales as a major source of funding, moving more towards grants and philanthropic support for their money, producers still want to get some kind of income from tickets.

In this brutal danse macabre of capitalism, buyer and seller don their poker faces, circle warily, and size each other up. “Tickets selling fast!” the seller whistles. “Better hurry before it sells out!” “A friend said it was half empty last week,” the buyer retorts. “Last time you guys did a show I got tickets for $20 at the last minute.”

Oh the drama!

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Theatre in New York is expensive, right? Surprise!

The huddled masses queue for ALABAMA or whatever must see musical. If you have TDF, you never need to wait in line again.
The huddled masses queue for ALABAMA or whatever must see musical. If you have TDF, you never need to wait in the TKTS line again.

Seeing theatre in the big city is expensive, right? All those Broadway shows and jacked up prices and what not. It’s surely gonna cost some serious “lettuce” – as the guys in GUYS AND DOLLS would say.

If your heart is set on Broadway, and in particular on those top 10 grossing shows, then yes, you are going to have to throw down some bills.

But elsewhere on the feeding chain where the real action and experience is, theatre in New York is surprisingly affordable. And sometimes it is simply way underpriced to the point of near free.

In fact, New York theatre is often cheaper than almost anywhere else. And when you factor in the quality you get here – a lot of New York theatre is without question the best value obtainable ON EARTH.

And while many of the same shows on in New York will one day make their way to the hinterlands (where they will cost more), those productions will rarely be anywhere near as good as they are here.

So the weird truth in America is that the very best theatre is also often the cheapest.

Why is that? The whims of the giant #NYCtheatre market place. When there are this many shows on jostling for audiences, producers are looking to fill every seat any which way they can. Millions of people come to New York to see theatre. That’s a force you can use.

If you know how to hold out, and particularly if you have access to TDF, which is like TKTS but in advance, you can play the game and walk away with some of the best shows for practically nothing.

So come see those new shows in New York – where they are better and cheaper.

Below is the roster for my current trip. So far, it looks like I only made one mistake – which was squandering $80 for the non play PERMISSION at MCC. I could have got that one in the TDF junk yard for $27. But honestly it’s not even worth that…

Look at these deals.

The new Bruce Norris play at Playwrights Horizons for $20?

Two new plays by Melissa Ross for $25 and $30?

The six hour WOLF HALL marathon for $80?

THE FLICK by Annie Baker inside the cozy Barrow Street Theatre for $27?

WHAT????

That’s right. Insane deals for some of the very best theatre there is. Just any other week in New York.

And look how many world premieres are on. This isn’t tired ass theatuh or that umpteenth production of MIDSUMMER or TWELFTH NIGHT in the sticks we’ve all been (not) waiting for. This is the living theatre. The real deal. New stuff from people with new stuff to say.

The least expensive part of a New York theatre trip is the theatre tickets. It’s getting here and especially finding somewhere to stay (unless you camp in the park, which you can still do) and something to eat (they have Trader Joe’s now – if you can take the hour long wait in line) that will set you back.

So if you want to see the best there is – get on all the New York theatre mailing lists, learn how and when show specials happen. And find a friend in the non profit world who can lend you their TDF member login.

And then settle in to your seat.

Because this one’s gonna be good.

5.27.2015 8 New World Stages – CLINTON: THE MUSICAL world premiere $33 (TDF)
5.28.2015 7 Rattlestick – AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE… by Daniel Talbott world premiere $20 (Special)
5.29.2015 8 Labyrinth Theater – NICE GIRL by Melissa Ross world premiere $25
5.30.2015 12-7 Theatre for One – I’M NOT THE STRANGER YOU THINK I AM world premiere FREE
5.30.2015 4 Bushwick Starr / New Georges – HEARTBREAK by Ariel Stess world premiere $20
5.30.2015 8 MCC Theater – PERMISSION by Robert Askins world premiere $80 MISTAKE >> Could have got for $27 on TDF
5.31.2015 2 Fiasco Theatre – THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA by Bill Shakestein $27 (TDF)
5.31.2015 7:30 Playwrights Horizons – THE QUALMS by Bruce Norris $20 (Special)
6.1.2015 7 Ars Nova – ANT FEST – Orpheus and Eurydice Are Fucking in Love $12
6.2.2015 7:30 Soho Rep – 10 OUT OF 12 by Anne Washburn world premiere $25
6.3.2015 2 RSC – WOLF HALL: PART ONE by Hilary Mantel $39 (TDF)
6.3.2015 7 Vineyard Theatre – GLORIA by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins world premiere $29 (TDF)
6.4.2015 7 RSC – WOLF HALL: PART TWO by Hilary Mantel $39 (TDF)
6.5.2015 7:30 Harlem Stage – NOTES OF A NATIVE SONG by Stew world premiere $60
6.7.2015 7:30 Barrow Street Theatre – THE FLICK by Annie Baker $27 (TDF)
6.9.2015 7 Manhattan Theatre Club – OF GOOD STOCK by Melissa Ross world premiere $30 (TDF)
6.10.2015 2 Lincoln Center – SHOWS FOR DAYS by Douglas Carter Beane world premiere $86.50
6.10.2015 7:30 Roundabout – SIGNIFICANT OTHER by Joshua Harmon $27 (TDF)