Danny Newman sold his first theatre subscriptions when he was 14 years old, going door to door in Chicago. That was in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Newman, a tireless press agent, spent the next three quarters of a century convincing other theatre people what a terrific idea these subscriptions were. Indeed, in his exhortatory 1977 book Subscribe Now!, he cited the widespread adoption of the practice of selling subscriptions to theatre audiences as “a major factor” in the creation and spectacular growth of the regional theatre movement in the 1960s and the ’70s. “Now theatres have found an audience for all the plays they produce,” he wrote, with a note of proud-chested satisfaction.
By the time Newman died in 2007, this approach was viewed with considerably more skepticism. Reflecting the field-wide change in attitude was a plotline in the second season of “Slings & Arrows,” the cult Canadian television series that ran from 2003 to 2006. In the show, the head of an avant-garde advertising agency convinces the general manager of the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival to run a series of advertisements designed to outrageously insult the theatre’s mostly elderly subscribers, driving them to cancel in droves. Although the head of the agency is ultimately unmasked as a serial con artist, his campaign actually winds up working: New Burbage attracts a young, hip new crowd—nontraditional theatregoers who become a large and wildly enthusiastic audience.
“Slings & Arrows” tapped a fantasy of theatres throughout North America, but only its first half corresponds with reality. Yes, many theatres have fewer subscribers—but it’s uncertain whether wildly enthusiastic young audiences will be replacing them. According to the latest edition of TCG’s Theatre Facts (see page 34), income from subscriptions in 113 theatres across the country has declined an average of 17.6 percent over a five-year period (when adjusted for inflation). In 2007, the income from subscriptions on average covered 19.3 percent of these theatres’ total expenses; this number went down to 15.6 percent in 2011.
The decline in subscriptions no longer surprises theatre administrators; some say it began happening as far back as two decades ago. “We’re kind of tired of talking about it,” Jeffrey Herrmann, the managing director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., told the Washington Post in August. Critics like the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout cite these statistics as evidence that theatre companies “continue to cling to the old-fashioned subscription model that provides them with a yearly cushion of ‘front money,’” even though many “under-50 Americans are too busy to commit in advance to attending specific performances on specific dates.”
But there is much debate in the industry over just what kind of animal subscriptions have become: dodo, scapegoat, sacred cow, cash cow; still-sturdy workhorse, or the canary in the collapsing coal mine?
“I don’t know any theatres that have outright killed their subscriptions; the model still works for many theatres,” says Kevin E. Moore, who until two years ago was managing director of the Arizona Theatre Company. That company’s aging subscribers, he says, stayed loyal. “But every single theatre I know of has been looking for ways to adapt their model, and to supplement it.” Moore sees the decline of subscriptions not as a cause for alarm but as a symptom of larger changes. “Audiences want a different experience in the theatre—more engagement with the art and with the artists and with each other,” he says. “It’s not enough for them anymore just to go to a theatre, sit in the dark, and then leave.”
Moore is now the managing director of Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of this magazine (and, 35 years ago, of Newman’s Subscribe Now!). Moore is in charge of Audience (R)Evolution, a new initiative to study and promote successful examples of audience engagement, which may wind up as a kind of new testament to Newman’s original Bible. “We’re not focusing on saving or killing the subscription model,” Moore says. “We are looking for other ways that theatres are engaging, or could be engaging, their audiences. We don’t know what’s out
there; we want to find out.”
Members, Not Subscribers
For 30 years, Rob Orchard helped run American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., first as managing director, then as executive director. When he helped found the theatre in 1979, subscriptions made sense.
“It was the dominant model, and it still worked,” Orchard says. Indeed, in the first couple of years at ART, so many people subscribed that the shows sold out and there were no single tickets available. Though that honeymoon didn’t last, Orchard saw firsthand the advantages of the subscription model. “Subscribers develop a wonderful emotional connection to the theatre, an incredible depth of commitment,” Orchard says. “They have a sense of belonging—a sense of ownership. Some subscribers left their subscription seats to their loved ones in their will.”
But times had changed by the time Orchard left ART in 2009 and set up shop as executive director of ArtsEmerson, a new public, professional performance program that is part of Emerson College. He deliberately avoided instituting any traditional subscriptions at ArtsEmerson (which, it should be pointed out, is a presenting rather than a producing organization). Instead, a theatregoer can pay $60 to become a member. Membership includes one free ticket (“so the membership immediately pays for itself”), as well as access to the best seats to all other shows before they go on sale to the public, and an opportunity to explore what goes on behind the scenes. “Subscriptions are a dying model,” Orchard says unequivocally. “I doubt there is any managing director or artistic director in the country who would start a theatre today with subscriptions as their primary
model.” Indeed, for all their value, Orchard sees many downsides to subscription: artistic, administrative, even political.
“One of the first questions that a theatre asks itself when considering a show is: ‘Is this something that will appeal to our subscribers?’ It’s a disproportionate barometer,” Orchard says. Having subscribers also requires that a show run for a set amount of time in order to enable all the subscribers to see it; artistic directors are thus thwarted from producing work with more limited appeal for shorter runs. And shows that become runaway hits usually can’t extend on the strict one-show-then-another season model; once the subscribers and a certain number of single-ticket buyers have seen it, it’s got to close to make way for the next production. The net results, Orchard maintains, “inhibits artistic choice.”
Many theatres, however, feel forced to maintain the number of subscribers, Orchard says, spending time, effort and money to maintain them that he feels could be spent on other priorities. Some of the most respected theatres in the country, Orchard continues, were lucky or smart enough never to offer subscriptions in the first place—such as Lincoln Center Theater, which has memberships instead—and plenty of newer companies are eschewing the subscription model, along with the structure that goes along with it, such as regular seasons. Orchard points to ensemble companies—the Civilians, Elevator Repair Service and SITI Company in New York, the Actors Gang and Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, the Rude Mechs in Austin—that have neither subscribers nor a traditional season. Most don’t even have a regular building in which they perform, thus reducing overhead costs. “They produce work only when they have the inspiration to do so,” Orchard says. “It’s a much more nimble way of working.”
The challenge for theatres that have well-established subscription programs, Orchard believes, is how to “transition out of that model and maintain the loyalty of the subscribers. There hasn’t been one particular model that’s replacing subscriptions. Everybody’s experimenting.”
Love and the Flex Pass
In a short video on YouTube, a cartoonishly overeager Betty and her non-romantic colleague Tom happen to be looking at a Seattle Weekly together when they both spot a show that’s playing at A Contemporary Theatre, or ACT. Betty tells Tom she’s seeing it Saturday. Tom tells Betty he has plans on Saturday. No problem, Betty replies—she can easily switch nights. Why? “I have an ACTPass,” Betty says. For a membership that costs $25 a month, theatregoers get passes allowing them to attend as many performances as they want at ACT (see Strategies, AT April ’11). ACT owns a building with eight floors and four venues, and has partnerships with other theatre companies, enabling them to offer some half-dozen mainstage plays and as many as 40 other shows a year. “I wish I could see them all,” Tom says in the promotional video after he and Betty have seen one and had a good time. “You can,” says Betty, gleaming. “With the ACTPass.”
Will love bloom between Tom and Betty? ACT executive director Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi makes no promises. But he clearly loves his flexible pass program, which started in 2009 with 39 members and now has about 1,500. This is still far fewer than the theatre’s 5,500 subscribers. But, Scandiuzzi says, “The ACTPass is in its infancy.” What’s more, the arcs of growth and decline are counterpoised: In 1996, ACT had 12,000 subscribers, more than double what it has now, and the average age of the subscribers is over 55, while ACTPass members are typically 20 years younger. “We’re migrating slowly to ACTPass and membership,” says Scandiuzzi.
Both an ACTPass and a subscription wind up providing the same amount of revenue for the theatre—about $300 a year per person. But with the ACTPass, Scandiuzzi says, “There’s a perception among the members that they are seeing the show for free.” The mindset of the subscribers, he says, is to judge each work more harshly, asking, “Is this worth the $60 I paid for it?” ACTPass members, Scandiuzzi says, see the ticket price as negligible or included in their membership, which in turn makes them more open to new work.
Free Is Cheaper
When Jack Reuler founded Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis in 1976, he decided against subscriptions for the reasons Rob Orchard eschewed them three decades later. At the time, though, Reuler concedes that “in a Danny Newman–crazed regional theatre movement, this was not a popular approach. I would attend TCG conferences and hear my colleague artistic directors boasting of their subscription size as though it was a measure of quality.” He got an earful about subscriptions on the home front, too; whether or not to institute subscriptions, Reuler recalls, “was an annual board debate.”
In 1999, Mixed Blood introduced flex passes, much as ACT in Seattle did a decade later. They come in two different flavors: The Mixed Blood Pass allows admission to all of the theatre’s mainstage shows, while the Ethno Metro Pass allows admission to all the theatre’s shows plus a selection of culturally specific works by other arts groups in the area. (The partners included in the Ethno Metro Pass change from year to year.)
Last year, Mixed Blood stepped up to the plate and pioneered another program, which it calls Radical Hospitality, in which the theatre now gives away many of the tickets to its shows for free. Under Radical Hospitality, a large number of seats for every performance are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis without charge (with guaranteed free admission for the disabled and others). In the first full season of Radical Hospitality at Mixed Blood, 43 percent of the audience entered for free. About 500 people are still flex pass members, down from about 900 at the program’s peak. Audience members who don’t have a flex pass can also guarantee entry in advance for $20, which is considered a reservation fee.
There is an august precedent for free theatre in the United States, of course. The Public Theater has offered free Shakespeare in the Park for 50 years, with the free tickets to seats at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park subsidized by corporate donations (though in recent years a certain percentage of seats has been available to donors of $1,000 or more). The State of Minnesota gave a grant for the first year of the Mixed Blood program, both to fund it and to figure out how it should work. In general, Mixed Blood is funded by a combination of corporate, foundation, government and individual donations. Since Radical Hospitality began, the theatre has stepped up its solicitation of donations. In the first year, Reuler says, the number of individual donors tripled.
Expenses also decreased; it turns out that it costs money to collect money. “We discovered that free is cheaper than cheap!” Reuler enthuses. “It cost more to have a $5 ticket than to eliminate admission altogether. Box-office needs and purpose transform under Radical Hospitality.”
The theatre also saved money it used to spend on attracting its audience, while experiencing an increase in the number of nontraditional theatregoers, including people of color, the young and the poor. “To see the level of diversity come in the house because of Radical Hospitality has been really overwhelming, in a good way,” Mixed Blood staff member Jamil Jude said a few months into the first season.
There is still much to be learned, Reuler admits, but he insists that Radical Hospitality is “not an experiment. It is how the Mixed Blood Theatre now does business. It will not be ‘radical’ in the near future.” Is it a sustainable model? Reuler believes it is. But he also says, “It is our belief as an institution that purpose and principles supersede survival. It’s better to go out of business on your own terms than to pander for survival. I think that mindset has led to our longevity.”
Or, as members of the Mixed Blood community (actors, stagehands, administrators) lip-synch on a Mixed Blood promotional video to Jessie J’s song, “Price Tag”: “It’s not about the money, money, money.”
The Other Side of the Story
For many theatres, though, the glass is much more than half-full. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, which saw a 20-percent dip in subscribers between 2007 and 2008, has since turned that decline around dramatically. “We have been on a steady rise ever since,” says Soo Pak, vice president of marketing and communication at BAM. Over the past four years, she says, the number of subscribers has increased 60 percent, and, over the past two years, revenue from subscriptions has doubled.
Some cite such exceptional reversals as reason to blame the Great Recession for much of the decline in theatre subscriptions. Others see any specific theatre’s subscription fortunes as cyclical, or a referendum on the theatre’s previous season, or a gauge of excitement for shows in the season to come. Most, though, seem to acknowledge a generational shift as a central quandary. They blame the rise of the couch potato, thanks to technology that has turned any home into an entertainment center: DVDs, the Internet, social media. They point also to the increasing reluctance of Americans in general, and young people in particular, to commit to something long-term or in advance.
“Americans are balking at all sorts of long-term entanglements, whether financial, romantic or even parental,” Ben Steverman wrote earlier this year in Bloomberg News. There has been an uptick in leasing or renting rather than buying cars and homes, and declines in long-term contracts for health clubs or mobile phones. Even the birthrate has gone down. A reluctance to commit to a theatre subscription, by this reading, is just part of a general trend.
“It’s very easy for those of us in the industry to look at the drop in subscriptions
and blame everything else: technology, changing consumer behavior, whatever,” says Adam Thurman, the director of marketing and communications at the Court Theatre in Chicago. But Thurman argues that this blame game is too easy. “The public still respects and understands the general idea of subscriptions. The rise of subscription services such as Netflix and Gamefly are examples of this.”
Thurman attributes at least some of the problem—“the part of the problem that can be fixed,” at least—to theatres’ simple failure to offer enough value to their subscribers. “Most theatres offer the same things, a discount on price, the ability to exchange tickets, etc. That may have been enough 10 or 15 years ago; I’m not sure it is anymore.” Last season, the Court created a magazine for its subscribers, which he says was closer to a coffee table book with “lots of cool illustrations and scholarly articles.” This season, they’re planning a preview party for the subscribers. The theatre also tries to make the season accessible to different kinds of audiences by offering a variety of play packages. But more important than what the theatre has done, Thurman says, is the shift in attitude that will now allow it to do more. “People are starting to embrace the idea that we don’t do enough for our subscribers,” says Thurman.
Besides his job at the Court, Thurman writes an arts marketing blog, Mission Paradox, and works as a marketing consultant for arts organizations and individual artists. He admits that many of his clients “have a more negative view of subscriptions than I do.”
But he is far from alone in resisting the subscription doomsaying. “If I hear one more pundit or read one more blog suggesting that ‘old models’ of arts organizations are dying and new models are needed, I am going to
scream,” Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, wrote in the Huffington Post in June. “We get that theatre practitioners are looking for good ideas,” says Joanne Steller of TRG Arts, a marketing consulting company for the performing arts community. “A concern we have for the industry at large is the focus on tactics—as if there are a couple of magic bullets that, once deployed, get you to the Promised Land of survival and solvency. There is growing impatience with the whole process of audience growth and sustaining it,” Steller says. “‘Alternatives’ has become code for ‘a path we’d rather take’ than choose the harder, more time-consuming one that addresses all sorts of consumers, including those who are driven by passion to subscribe.”
As Steller’s colleague Amelia Northrup has written: “Let’s not throw out a model that works.” TRG points to several theatres that conducted successful turnaround campaigns focusing on their subscriptions or subscribers. The Arts Club Theatre Company of Vancouver, for instance, actually cut back on its subscription options in favor of its fixed-seat, full-season packages—as a result they were able to increase by 33 percent. A campaign by the 5th Avenue Theatre of Seattle used such incentives as backstage tours and show posters to turn an unprecedented number of its subscribers into donors. What’s more, 5th Avenue’s “Super Subscribers” campaign demonstrated the error of the conventional wisdom that a theatre’s philanthropists are a distinctly separate species from its consumers.
D.C.’s Arena Stage, which had experienced declining subscriptions for four years,
reversed course, increasing the number of subscriptions over the next three years by more than 50 percent and revenue from subscriptions by almost 75 percent. At the same time, their subscription-related marketing costs decreased. On his Arts Marketing blog, Chad Bauman, Arena’s associate executive director, explained how when first hired in 2007, “I was certain that the subscription model was outdated and ineffective.” But he couldn’t find an alternative that swayed focus groups. Eventually he concluded that it was not the subscription model at fault but the theatre’s execution of it. Arena instituted a whole slew of “major tactical changes,” which included simplifying its pricing; focusing on customer service (and giving subscribers little perks like complimentary artisan chocolates and subscriber-only events); eliminating all subscription advertising and replacing it with revamped, more targeted direct mail and telemarketing campaigns; delaying the offer of partial season packages and working hard to convince subscribers to opt for (or upgrade to) the full-season subscriptions.
His experience at Arena has led Bauman to conclude that subscriptions are still
“the best way” for most theatres. But that comes with a large caveat. Along with nearly everybody else, he accepts that the emerging generation of theatregoers exhibits “different purchasing behaviors,” and he believes “we should be testing models today that better prepare us for the future.
“Subscriptions should not be a sacred cow,” Bauman continues. “If a theatre can increase its capacity to produce quality art by replacing its subscription model, then it should do so. I only caution them to make sure that the new model is tested, on a small scale, before being launched.”
That’s wisdom we can all subscribe to.
Jonathan Mandell is an arts writer based in New York.