Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pick your price

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 me 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.

-- Alan, Director of Communications, Pillsbury House Theatre


  1. Thanks for this post Alan! Very interesting. I am going to pass this blog post on to our Marketing Department here at CTG!

  2. Thank you Alan! I love that you are doing this and would love to hear more about your data specifics as you have a chance to go over what you are learning. AND I love your early speculations. This is very similar to feedback I have received from some other (usually quite small) theatres who have tried pay what you can programs.

    I think you hit on 3 key points:

    1) We don't HAVE to lose money when we find ways to address the barrier to attendance that cost is for some people. We can serve those people AND encourage other patrons to help support the art. I think this is a small form of donating to the theatre that feels more personal and, as you say, heartwarming for many audience members.

    2) Price is not the ONLY barrier to attendance. I think sometimes we forget that. Parking, scheduling, not understanding the shows being offered and many other things might also be barriers to attendance we need to address.


    3) High quality and continued outreach in as many ways as possible are also part of creating success. It is a mix, it is always a mix.

    Thank you so much for doing this, and for sharing with us all how it is working out!