Forum Theatre will let theatergoers decide what to pay

Forum Theatre, a 10-year-old Silver Spring-based company with a penchant for boldness, will no longer be setting the price of admission to its plays.

You will.

(Melissa Blackall/Melissa Blackall) - A production photo from Forum Theatre's "Clementine in the Lower 9," which was a part of its 2012/13 Season.

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In a gambit that will be watched by performing arts groups — and, Forum hopes, potential playgoers —across the region, the troupe is instituting a policy allowing patrons to pay whatever they think a performance is worth, for every show. The practice will start next month with its first production, “Agnes Under the Big Top,” in the space it occupies next to the AFI Silver Theatre.

The idea of effectively ceding control of the box office to customers is, of course, fraught with uncertainty and risk, even for a modest-sized company like Forum, with its $110,000 annual budget and a rent-free, receipts-sharing deal with its landlord Round House Theatre. That arrangement ends next June, when Round House gives up the Silver Spring space. The ticketing strategy also could prove somewhat threatening to other companies in the region that charge north of $100 for some seats.

But Michael Dove, Forum’s artistic director, says that he has long been concerned about what it means to be a nonprofit theater — an enterprise supported to some degree by taxpayers — that is beyond the financial reach of many consumers. “The one thing I wanted to take a crack at is how do we make theater accessible to everyone, and get past the idea that it’s only for someone in a certain economic bracket,” he said.

The notion of bringing down the income barriers is gaining some traction in an industry struggling with how to invigorate an aging audience base with new cadres of younger and more diverse theatergoers. In Minneapolis, for example, the innovative Mixed Blood Theatre two years ago inaugurated a “Radical Hospitality” program that every night gives away half the 200 seats in the house to walk-up customers free of charge. (The rest can be bought in advance for $20.)

It’s been so successful, according to Mixed Blood’s Managing Director Amanda White Thietje, that the company has broken even in the program’s first two years. And, perhaps more importantly, it has ushered in a younger audience: Fully 60 percent of the “Hospitality” patrons are under the age of 30, she said.

Forum’s introduction to the Washington area of a modified version of Mixed Blood’s venture is bound to generate buzz, says Ryan Rilette, who as Round House’s producing artistic director runs both that company’s business and artistic sides. “What Michael is doing is a fascinating model,” Rilette said. “We will all be looking to Michael to see if it does work.”

Theater companies, like other nonprofit performing arts institutions, are sensitive to perceptions that ticket prices are prohibitive. They create varieties of programs, ranging from pay-your-age offers for young adults, to software-guided pricing that rises and falls according to demand, to mitigate the high cost of theater-going. But few companies are lean enough to turn the occasional practice of pay-what-you-can performances into a routine facet of their business.

That, however, is exactly what Dove and his board of trustees are doing. Under the plan, for which some details have yet to be worked out, patrons will be able to attend any Forum performance by paying as little as a quarter or 50 cents. As at Mixed Blood, Dove explained, some of the roughly 150 general admission seats will be set aside each night for people who still want to book ahead, and those will be sold for $20. Becoming a member with added programmatic benefits for the entire five-play season (for less than $100) will also remain an option.

Rebecca Ende, who is president of the Forum board, says that because only about a third of Forum’s budget is raised by ticket sales — the top single-ticket price has been $25 for a few years — “the leap to ‘pay what you can’ is not that great.” Still, as Dove noted, even that relatively inexpensive ticket was too high for a large number of people in the Silver Spring area the company wants to reach. These are the same people, Dove added, who don’t know the ins and outs of discount ticket offers on the Web or other cost-reducing mechanisms with which those in the habit of going to the theater are familiar.

“That sort of knowledge is not open to people who are not regular theatergoers,” Dove said.

The new pricing strategy may also have audience-development advantages specific to Forum’s situation. It’s a company known in the theater community for adventurous work: its most recent premiere was the politically charged “The T Party,” by Washington playwright-director Natsu Onoda Power. Forum relocated from Washington to Silver Spring a few years ago, and finding a following on Colesville Road has been challenging.

“The type of work Michael is doing fits more for a D.C.-based audience,” Rilette suggested, adding that by removing a price point entirely, Forum will increase the possibility that “you can take a chance with these guys. You have no excuse not to try it.”

Dove says he and the board will take the season to analyze the experiment; the company may be looking for a new home after next June, anyway. Whether this will spark a revolution he doesn’t know. But he doesn’t believe what some argue, that lowering the entry fee diminishes the value of what a company puts on the stage.

“When I hear that argument, what I ask as a nonprofit is, ‘Who are our stakeholders?’ Right now it’s every taxpayer in Maryland. And if we are getting these benefits, then what we’re doing by someone charging say $40 is, we are devaluing our audience.”

At least one donor agreed. After Dove outlined his new ticket plan, the individual doubled a commitment to Forum, to $30,000.

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