Free admission is just the ticket

  • Article by: SHARYN JACKSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2012 - 2:35 PM

Mixed Blood Theatre and others have boosted audience diversity and access by offering free and reduced-price admission.

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Mixed Blood Theatre's Jack Reuler considers the Radical Hospitality free-admission program to be a big success in attracting theatergoers.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Jack Reuler doesn't mind that his organization is losing money. In fact, said Reuler, it's a sign of success.

Mixed Blood Theatre just ended its first season of free admission to all of its productions, and Reuler, the troupe's founder and artistic director, said the organization achieved exactly what it had hoped: filling seats with everybody who wanted one.

"We did not break even, nor did we intend to," said Reuler.

In an effort to expand and diversify its audience, Mixed Blood last year announced a new cost-free admission program. Called Radical Hospitality, the initiative offers free tickets on a first-come-first-served basis two hours before each show. A limited number of tickets are available for purchase for $15 for those who want the guarantee of a seat. At a time when tickets are becoming an increasingly expensive commodity at theaters nationwide, the move was indeed radical.

"We're trying to eliminate one of many barriers to participation, and thought we'd tackle the hardest one first," said Reuler.

As a result, weekly attendance rose 18 percent over the previous season, and ticket revenue was $170,000 less than in 2010-11, Reuler said. That income gap was partially filled by a rise of about $100,000 in contributed income over the year before.

But, Reuler explained, "No shows are ever paid for by their box office. We no longer review our shows by the dollars they generate by guaranteed admission."

New thinking

While Mixed Blood may be the first theater in the Twin Cities to eliminate admission fees, it is part of a wave of theaters rethinking the classic ticketing model. Reuler said Mixed Blood looked for guidance from New York's Public Theater, which has been giving away tickets to Shakespeare in the Park for 50 years.

Here, several theater companies do one-off "pay-what-you-can" nights, and since 2010, the Minnesota Theater Alliance has participated in the national "Free Night of Theater," which brought 5,000 patrons to local stages for the first time.

Leah Cooper, executive director of the alliance, said that audience diversification initiatives like these are on the rise in the Twin Cities. "There's a much more progressive mind-set around arts and culture for everybody," said Cooper. "It's that egalitarian idea that everybody should get to participate equally here."

Pillsbury House Theatre has a weekly pay-what-you-can night, and for the past two seasons it has allowed patrons to pay what they want for one show each season. Alan Berks, communications director, said the program began as an experiment that has proven successful. Both pay-what-you-can shows in the past two years, "Brokeology" and "Buzzer," had several sell-out weeks.

"What we discovered is if you make it accessible, people will come in droves," said Berks. He said the average prices patrons elected to pay was equivalent to the cost of a movie ticket. And that, he said, helped get people in the door who may have previously shied away from Pillsbury's provocative lineup.

"Our work is always a hard sell because we promise to challenge you," said Berks. "Lowering the financial risk allows more people to discover that they liked being challenged."

Fewer empty seats

Reuler, too, said he found that new audiences were eager to experience the company's similarly thought-provoking works. "We had certain people we wanted to have come filling seats that had been empty," said Reuler.

Specifically, 47 percent of the 2011-12 audience was under the age of 30; 30 percent were people of color; 33 percent earned less than $25,000. On any given night at Mixed Blood, he said, roughly half the audience had opted for the free-seat plan.

Most important for the future of the theater, 36 percent had never been to Mixed Blood. That statistic is already translating into growth: The number of new donors culled from the audience tripled compared with last year at this time.

The only kinks being worked out for next year, said Reuler, are confusing lobby traffic before showtime and the occasional selling-out of advanced tickets.

Reuler, Berks and Cooper agree that egalitarian ticketing has not affected the challenging nature of the works being produced, and Cooper thinks that expanded audience diversity may even encourage producers to take more risks.

"There's a lot of theater out there about angsty New York trust-funders, people who are economically comfortable," said Cooper. "And as our audiences include people who are not economically comfortable, we may see that reflected. It seems to me that once you start building a relationship with a more diverse audience, we feed off of them, and they feed off of us."

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4260

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