As of Monday afternoon, Arena Stage had about 80 tickets left to sell for March 10 performance of “Red,” now the theater’s highest-grossing nonmusical ever. Most were in the balcony and on the far sides of the 514-seat Kreeger Theater. All were going for $100.
The $100 price isn’t exactly the new normal for local not-for-profit theater, as distinct from touring commercial hits such as “Wicked” and “Billy Elliot” (which can command Broadway-level prices here). But a psychological barrier has been broken. The $100 level was pioneered in fall 2010 as Arena moved into its deluxe renovated complex with the phenomenally popular “Oklahoma!” About that time, the Shakespeare Theatre Company was fetching as much as $108 for the musical “Candide.”
Certain prices continue to nose toward the century mark. The top ticket for the recently closed “Hairspray” at Signature Theatre was $91. As the Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentleman of Verona” closes this weekend, seats will go for up to $95.
New York theater is well into the era of premium pricing, with Broadway producers hanging on to ideal seats for in-demand shows and charging scalpers’ rates themselves. “Book of Mormon,” by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is the current prime example of making a Broadway killing, with premium seats fetching more than $450. Must-see events — Hugh Jackman prancing through his own musical, Kevin Spacey in “Richard III” — command well over $100. And patrons are fine with that.
“It was worth it,” says local theatergoer Molly Frantz of the $100-plus price she paid for “Richard III.”
Frantz and her theater group, which met last Sunday in Washington’s Observatory Circle neighborhood, are unfazed by Washington tickets largely because there are so many routes around high prices, at least for subscribers and savvy shoppers.
But without those subscription rates and other deals Frantz takes advantage of — “Red” for $58 last week, “Sucker Punch” at the Studio Theatre for $40 — “I would stop and think about it,” Frantz says.
Pat Timm of Rockville subscribes to Synetic Theater and attends shows all over the region. She knows where the discounts are, but says that highly motivated patrons are willing to pay the max. “I think they’ll just go to what they want to go to,” Timm says.
Which is why Darby Lunceford, marketing and communications director of the Shakespeare, says he wasn’t anxious about the effect on demand when the $100 ticket price was introduced.
“We definitely do market research,” Lunceford says.
But are such high prices counter to the not-for-profit theater’s mission of accessibility? It’s an old predicament, yet an Occupy mentality has taken root lately, with prices as one of the flashpoints.
Naysaying has flared in the Twitterverse and blogosphere (follow on Howlround, 2AMt, Parabasis, Jumper). Not-for-profit’s moral crisis — bottom-line pressures and corporate behavior — has been the subject of such recent cage-rattling works as ”Outrageous Fortune,” the much-discussed book about playwrights left in the institutional cold, and writer-performer Mike Daisey’s solo-show indictment, “How Theater Failed America,” recently at Woolly Mammoth).
One current target: “dynamic pricing,” which helps theaters realize higher top rates. It’s the old supply and demand game: When supply gets tight, prices escalate. Theaters are growing more frank about this. “Tickets range from $30 to $67.50,” read the where/when line at the end of a recent Washington Post article on this summer’s return of Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” to Woolly Mammoth. “But prices may rise as performances fill up.”
Thus, the $100 “Red” tickets — which, as Arena’s director of communications, Chad Bauman, points out, would have cost less had you bought sooner. (Or chosen midweek: Tuesday tickets have been going for as little as $55.)
Bauman, who will transition from Arena to the Smithsonian at the end of this month, is a guru regarding dynamic pricing. “I’m a huge proponent,” he says. Bauman doesn’t assert that dynamic pricing has made Arena more money — at least not exactly. But he is convinced that creating demand, which Arena has been able to do often in the 16 months since moving into the $135 million Mead Center, drives the base of subscribers up.
A recent national survey by Theatre Communications Group reported subscriptions down 15 percent at key theaters from 2006 to 2010. Yet full-season subscriptions are up 131 percent at Arena since 2009 (the year the company embraced dynamic pricing), and subscriptions of all kinds are up 28 percent at Arena from last season.
Last season, people couldn’t get tickets as Arena’s refashioned complex opened. Arena’s “every tongue confess,” the Marcus Gardley drama that christened the new 200-seat Cradle theater, fetched prices above $100, and Bauman says “Oklahoma!” tickets were being scalped for more than $500. The message to patrons banging to get in? Subscribe, or at least act early.
“Audiences learn they can get a significant deal purchasing in advance,” Bauman says, repeating the idea like a mantra.
Peek ahead: Seats are already tight on Saturdays through May for Arena’s “The Music Man,” and they’re going for $109. Saturdays in early June can be had for $94 to $99, though perhaps not for long. Bauman explains the “sales breaks” thresholds: When sales for a given performance reach 60 percent of capacity, the price bumps up. And again at 70 percent and at 80 percent.
Of course, on a Tuesday in mid-July, tickets are widely available at $64 to $79. But those prices, too, may rise, depending on demand.
It can be a public relations problem when lavish-looking top prices suggest not-for-profits are inaccessible and elite. Bauman counters that only 10 percent of tickets are sold at top price and that a lot of early discounting goes on to help drive capacity and demand. “To get to 60 percent of capacity,” Bauman says, “you’ve discounted those tickets.”
A better gauge of accessibility, Bauman suggests, is not the top price but the average. He says the top at Arena is more than double the average price paid, although he declines to offer an exact number. (No one can say why some not-for-profit theaters aren’t as transparent as Broadway, which weekly releases all box office figures — attendance, grosses, top price, average price.)
Lunceford and Maggie Boland, managing director at Signature Theatre, get specific. The commercially touring “Fela!” at the Shakespeare’s Harman Hall had a top price of $120, but the average ticket price came out to $61. The average price for a ticket to Signature’s “Hairspray” was about $58, in part because of heavy sales of family four packs at $125. For all the shows in the season so far, Signature patrons are paying, on average, about $61 a ticket — and that’s without dynamic pricing, which Boland fears might create “resentment” (at least in her intimate theater) between customers buying at different levels.
Bauman and Lunceford report few, if any, gripes from customers. Arena tracks all complaints, and pricing is “one of the least complaints we ever get,” Bauman says. “I think people are used to it.”
The marketing upside of high prices is prestige. “It can communicate success,” Bauman says. Major not-for-profit theaters have significant budgets, pushing $20 million annually for Arena and Shakespeare and topping $7 million for Signature — and they all have educational and outreach programs to maintain. Why blame theaters for earning what they can in dicey times?
“If we didn’t take advantage of single ticket prices in line with the market, we’d be leaving money on the table,” Boland says. Signature’s economy is especially challenging: The troupe produces big musical projects but has small seating capacities (276 in the Max and 112 in the Ark). Signature’s ticket sales account for about 55 percent of its $7.2 million budget; the rest has to be raised, and funders like to support institutions that run their businesses well. “We can’t be naive about it,” Boland says.
Dynamic pricing goes the other way, too, of course, driving values down for shows that don’t sell. As “Elephant Room” wrapped up its run last weekend at Arena’s 200 seat Cradle, some patrons got in for as little as $15 through an online discount service.
Online “here’s-a-deal!” come-ons have become very common, originating from the theaters themselves or from increasingly popular outlets such as Goldstar and Groupon. During Valentine’s week more than a dozen shows — nearly everything playing on D.C. stages — could be had at roughly half price.
Such offers can be part of strategic efforts to reach desirable demographics. They can also be desperate stabs at moving slow-selling shows.
The upside? Getting new people through the door. “Take that risk at a discount price,” says Yulia Kriskovets, chief operating officer of the acclaimed movement-based Synetic Theater, where the standard ticket range is $45 to $55.
The downside? The theaters typically don’t have access to information about those online discount customers, making follow-up promotions impossible. Worse is the fear that discounts stoke a hard-to-break habit: relying on price breaks.
Carolyn Griffin, producing artistic director of MetroStage, says, “The problem is, yes, it’ll sell your ticket.” ($45 to $50 is the face value for MetroStage’s current “Josephine Tonight,” a modestly scaled musical that has 16 people on the payroll for each performance.) “But those patrons will never buy another full price ticket. So we are burying ourselves. It’s a catch-22.”
“How do you promote the product without changing its perceived value?” Kriskovets asks. “I see quite a lot of offers out there. Discounts can be a great way to bring in new patrons and offer them a risk-free way to try a theater, but they also may create that culture of expecting a deal.”
The online bargain providers have certainly taken a bite out of Ticketplace, the longtime half-price ticket outlet in Washington. “There’s no denying that,” Ticketplace manager Steven Cupo says. But the recent trend is up, and Ticketplace just had its best December in five years.
The first reason Cupo cites for the revenue increase: “Ticket prices are higher.”