The Playgoer: Theatre--Or Your Money Back!

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Theatre--Or Your Money Back!

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)

1 comment:

Malachy Walsh said...

This whole thing is screwed up, but I think it might be a good idea to look at what someone else did in a similar vein to promote his movies some 50 years ago - William B. Castle.

A master of promotion, in his autobiography, STEP RIGHT UP, I'M GOING TO SCARE THE PANTS OFF AMERICA (I'm not making this up) Castle said he offered money back on one of his horror movies to anyone too afraid to watch through to the end.

According to him (as I remember it), on the first showing, no-one asked for money back. On the second showing, nearly everyone asked for their money back. Apparently, the first audience waited in the theatre until the second showing started and then asked for all their money back.

While this doesn't completely make sense to me (were the ushers not getting everyone out?) his solution was simple: He made anyone who asked for their money back sit in a booth with some pejorative label over the top - something like "The Coward's Booth" - until the audience exited and filed by.

No one ever asked for a refund again.

So, I don't know, maybe require refund requesters to sit in a booth labeled "Narrow Minded Idiot"?

Anyway, the suggestions you quote here are an example of coming up with solutions without carefully considering the right questions: What is the obstacle to getting someone to try something different?

I'm pretty sure, when it comes to theatre, it's not money - though that becomes an easy answer because the complaints often get couched in financial terms ("What a waste of money" and "That wasn't worth a nickel").

If you're willing to pony up more then $25 for two hours in the dark, you HAVE money - and if you're considering theatre, you're looking to spend it because you're probably considering a few other things too.

The problem is people believe, rightly or wrongly, that "entertainment" means "laughter and forgetting about my problems" and many new plays and theatrical works just don't work that way.

Ie, WICKED and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and SPAMALOT might work that way, but DOLLHOUSE from Mabou Mines does not. Neither does BLASTED nor whatever Adam Rapp is doing today.

Theatres that specialize in new work, difficult work or experimental work, if they want to attract newer, broader audiences without changing the nature of their work, need to figure out a way to disrupt the status quo understanding of what it means to go into a theatre in the first place.

And I believe the best place to start is outside the theatre. Yeah, I mean the Lobby. But also the street. And the postcard. And the website. And the rest of the publicity. Etc.

Granted, easy to say, hard to follow through on.