In what may be a first for the nation, Minneapolis-based Mixed Blood Theatre is offering free admission to all shows in its next three seasons.
The program, announced Monday, is called "Radical Hospitality." While eliminating an important barrier to admission, it will not mean any compromise on quality, said Jack Reuler, founder of the 35-year-old company.
"We will still have topnotch talent in acting and directing and writing," he said. "This is a way to be true to our egalitarian mission, which is to be totally inclusive."
The theater announced a 2011-2012 season of new plays that features such talents as Obie-winning director Marion McClinton and well-known actors Sally Wingert and Jevetta Steele.
The company, which also does tours and specialized, off-site shows, is known for drawing diverse audiences to its 250-seat theater in an old firehouse on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota.
"We have access programs for the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, for Latinos, for young people," said Reuler. "We thought, why not combine them and just make them into something grand?"
Revenue from ticket sales has been an important but declining part of the $1.4 million budget as the playhouse has ramped up fundraising efforts. "Radical Hospitality" will be funded in part by foundations, individuals and the Legacy Amendment, said Reuler.
Mixed Blood's free-entry policy is "a bold experiment that is going to provide leadership for the entire field," said Teresa Eyring, head of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the New York-based service organization for American nonprofit theaters. "Theaters like the Watts Village Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe have offered tickets for suggested donations. Some theaters have said you can get in by paying your age in dollars plus the roll of a dice. But I don't know of anything like what Mixed Blood is planning. And it's very exciting."
In recent years, programs aimed at broadening audiences have included "free night of theater," a program championed by TCG for over a decade. In 2005, New York's Signature Theatre reduced its ticket prices from $65 to $15 in a successful bid to broaden and "young up" its audiences.
In the Twin Cities, Pillsbury House Theatre recently made the entire run of the play "Broke-ology" a pay-what-you-can affair, and the theater also offered free child care on select nights.
"The barriers to access are sometimes financial, sometimes psychological," said Pillsbury House communications director Alan Berks. "Without question, the ability to pay whatever they wanted increased access for our patrons. Our audiences grew by almost 50 percent, which is huge."
Mixed Blood is hoping for a similar result. All of its free tickets will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Those seeking guaranteed admission to a particular performance of a show can purchase tickets online or over the phone for $15. The theater also will continue its season subscription program.
"The costs are still there, but they are being borne by others," said Reuler. "Theaters get funding for programming, for operations and for special programs. We're getting funding for our users, and putting them first."