I'm sure it's been tried before, but now some Chicago funder is promoting the idea of "money-back guarantees" as a condition for backing certain "risk taking" productions.
Okay, the "good intentions" are that a "risky" "product" (e.g. a play by or starring an unknown about an unpleasant subject) requires extra incentive and/or reassurance for the audience to buy a ticket. So in order to "enhance" the possibility of "success," the proposal is something like, Sure we believe in your show! We just want to make sure people come see it (and hence not waste OUR investment) and they'll only come if they know they know the ticket is "risk-free."
Well who's against audience incentives, right? (Or free--or potentially free--tickets!) But, um, we do have to wonder what is meant by "satisfaction" in this case, don't we? As well as the implication that if you, the audience member, have any qualm about what you saw (made you question the meaning of your existence, your government's complicity in certain crimes) then the performance you just saw has been rendered literally worthless. Like a defective toy or undercooked entree.
You also gotta wonder: what kind of pathetic crankypants actually takes the management up on the offer of, in this case:
a rep stationed in the lobby or at the box office after each performance, foundation cash in hand. Disgruntled customers would fill out the shortest of forms, explaining why they were dissatisfied, and get their money back on the spot.Mere embarrassment (not to mention support of the arts) would prevent many of us from even bothering. But sure enough, those same folk who spend the whole show complaining to the usher about their program or yelling at the actors to talk louder....they'd be lining up.
Yes, a ticket to a play is certainly a "commodity" like it or not. And theatre managements have always at least considered refunds for such extenuating circumstances as a star's absence, faulty air conditioning, or falling scenery. But for not being adequately entertained by El Grito del Bronx??? (The Goodman production selected as a test case.)
I also reject another notion reportedly informing this initiative--namely that if critics get to "test" a product--I mean, play--for free...why can't you!
Most media coverage of theater is written as if the author were blissfully ignorant of the fact that normal people have to fork over hard-earned cash to be in the audience. Critics, who usually get the best seats in the house without having to pay for them, aren’t compelled to think about what it means to pony up for a ticket and then have to peer between heads from a seat under the balcony at a show that might turn out to have been overrated.Lemme tell ya something. I'm no John Simon, but having reviewed professionally for a few years now I can say that there is no correlation between free tickets and enjoyment factor. If anything, I could argue the opposite. Perhaps at some shows I'd be more likely to relax and overlook a performance's shortcomings had I put out a lot of dough for my missus and I to enjoy a nice evening out--not only to rationalize the choice to myself but to convince her! But having paid nothing, I've invested nothing--right, my business-minded friends? As we all know, we're more likely to walk out on comp'd shows, as long as we're not reviewing or don't have friends in it. If we shell out three figures, you sit there at intermission stewing, promising, I'm getting every dollar's worth out of this show if it kills me!)
My point, in brief, is that for a working critic, most of the shows you see are not your choosing, and not even at a time of your choosing. And you have homework to do on it. So--for better or worse for the artists involved--it is hardly the mindset most conducive to fun.
Also, consider this: the majority of reviews, I'd hazard, are negative. Not positive. If free tickets made it easier to like a show, wouldn't most reviews be more...favorable?
(Hat tip: McLennan)