CHICAGO: Broken Nose Theatre’s mission to spark conversation in the community and create accessible theatre is about to reach a new height—and perhaps some new audience members. The Chicago storefront theatre is turning the pay-what-you-can policy they’ve had during previews into a full-season initiative of “We Set the Stage, You Set the Price” to produce theatre without the obstacle of a fixed ticket price.
“Accessibility has always been one of our key values, but what about economic accessibility?” said director of programming Spenser Davis. “We decided to buckle down and make Season Four economically accessible as well.”
First up on the slate? The third annual Bechdel Fest, Sept. 20–23. The festival, now in its third year, will feature 10-minute plays with all-female casts that must pass the Bechdel Test—an exercise created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel which measures a story by whether it has two or more female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. Each play in the fest will be by playwrights from or living in Chicago.
“We created this fest with the clear goal of getting more female voices on stage and to provide opportunities for female-driven stories, because we were seeing a major lack of them in the storefront scene in Chicago,” said Davis.
Broken Nose Theatre’s pay-what-you-can model for previews and talkback sessions has typically filled more seats and brought new audience members to the theatre. The demographic of these audiences also skewed older and more ethnically diverse, and many came from outside the city. “Our pay-as-you-can previews were consistently the largest and most diverse audience,” Davis said. “In the talkbacks, we were getting many different opinions, and when audiences would respond it was a richer conversation—that comes with the territory.”
Budgeting for a show can be tricky without knowing the income from the box office, and Davis noted that ticket sales account for approximately one-third of a production’s budget. But with in-kind donations, fundraisers, and advice from such pay-as-you-can Chicago businesses as Panera Cares, Broken Nose is confident that the initiative will succeed. “We have started partnering with exciting organizations who believe in our mission and are willing to take this risk,” said Davis. “It isn’t just to get bigger audiences, but to give a sampler plate to first-time theatregoers.”
A partnership with Den Theatre helped to secure a performance space for the Bechdel Fest, which will serve, Davis said, as a “test run to see how this model works. We will be able to pave the way for the rest of the year—and maybe inspire other groups to do this, too.”