Ushers and Entryways: Audience Expectations

06.10.10 | 4 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, development, funding and support, ideas, marketing, non-profit theatre, presenting, producers, storefront theatre, theatrical ecosystem

The space and conventions around a live performance determine whether it is fundamentally inclusive or exclusive.  When an arts organization or producer decides to charge $100 for a ticket, and another decides to put on a show for free, either performance can be “legitimate” and draw a large crowd, if the conventions of the space and the event harmonize with that price, or absence of price.

Here is a photo from a live show earlier this week: She and Him, at Millennium Park in Chicago, on June 7, 2010.  A Monday night.  The admission price of $0.00 did not have a negative impact on the turnout.

She and Him performed on Sunday, June 6, 2010, in Royal Oak, Michigan, for a ticket price of $24 in advance, $29 at the door.

The Sunday show sold out.

The Monday show was incapable of selling out.  There were no tickets.  There was no line dividing inside from outside.

The conversation about pricing often centers on low-price tickets versus high-price tickets.

But the differences in the experience of these two performances, which were otherwise basically the same concert, are the conventions of tickets, entryways, velvet ropes, and ushers (or, in the case of a concert venue, bouncers): human and physical barriers that separate the outside world from the inside world, and separate the event from the world outside.

These are fundamentally two different types of events.  Joe Papp knew this.  If free Shakespeare performances were held at the Public Theater, instead of Central Park, the audience would receive confusing signals: free tickets, but an event in a space designed step by step to separate itself from the “rest of the world.”

He knew how to draw a crowd by establishing theatergoing conventions that matched his intention, show by show, to include or exclude.

It’s easy to produce free and cheap theater and pull a contented audience, if the space and experience are designed around emphasizing inclusion.

The new Apple store in Manhattan is steps away from Avery Fisher Hall.  Is a recital in the former by Leif Ole Andsnes any less legitimate?  Looks like these folks didn’t think so.

Meanwhile, it would be fair enough for a citizen to complain about a $29 show in Central Park or Millennium Park.  After all, it’s public land, maintained by taxpayer dollars.

If a public library, or a church, one day decided to charge even $5 for admission, I can’t imagine its patrons taking it well. 

A theater can align itself with other community not-for-profit organizations, or it can be an exclusive space.  Either case sets patron expectations.  But foundations and others who support 501(c)3 not-for-profit organizations should be appalled at the idea of an institution charging high prices not out of necessity, but simply because its leaders believe that the audience won’t “get” or “like” the show unless it costs an arm and a leg.

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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • Some fancy/touristy churches do charge admission. St. Paul's in London was, I think, 5 pounds just to go in during the week, though free for mass. But I absolutely see your point.

  • I agree with what you've said here, but I think a point may be missed here in the discussion.

    In many scientific and well-documented studies, it has been carefully demonstrated that price affects perceived quality. For example: Group A is sold a cup of Beer Y for $1, then asked to rate its quality; next, Group B is sold a cup of Beer Y for $5, then asked to rate its quality; Group B inevitably gives the beer far higher marks. Similar studies have been conducted on everything from aspirin to Diet Pepsi to music performances, and the results are entirely consistent.

    This leads me to wonder whether the group that watched the performance of She and Him on June 6 would have given it better marks than the group that watched the June 7 performance. Naturally, the band might have been “off” one night or the other, and certainly other factors weren't held consistent — the venue, the ushers (or lack thereof), and the other factors you mention — but I have a suspicion that the bias might still have held. Those who paid for their tickets probably, I'm guessing, loved the concert more.

    All of which is to not to say that theater should start charging more for their tickets so that people who buy them will enjoy their shows more. That, I think, would be an overly simplistic conclusion. It is merely to suggest that we all be aware of the influence of price on an audience's experience of the quality of what they're experiencing, and weigh that factor among many others when setting a value for our work.

  • One question: In your last paragraph, I don't see a useful distinction between non-profit and for-profit organizations. Shouldn't we be appalled if *any* organization charges abusively high prices as some kind of perverse psychological substitute for actual quality? Monster Cable comes to mind.

    Abusive behavior aside, if a 501(c)3 could make a legitimate argument that a slightly higher price brings higher appreciation — is that a morally indefensible position? Especially if there are discount structures in place to make sure folks actually do get in the door if they want to get in?

    I guess it comes down to: what actually is the mission of the non-profit? How do we judge our success? Is it getting X number of people into a room to watch a performance whether or not they care about it? Is it to get Y number of people in the same room that have demonstrated how, in some measurable way, they want to be there? I don't have an answer; I think it's a hard question.

  • Trisha Mead

    I think you've found an intriguing nugget here, related to how space can help define the parameters of pricing. Our shared cultural assumptions about spaces that are normally “free and public” (like the mall, parks, forest areas, etc) definitely do seem to counteract the value equation of more expensive equals better… with a couple caveats that I feel need pointing out.

    1. Most of the examples you've mentioned of high quality performance happening free in public spaces feature high profile ringer performers who normally charge a high fee for their work. She and Him, your music example, is a duo featuring Zooey Deschanel, an indie movie star with a cult following. She would most likely sell out both venues if she said she was going to show up and read “Pat the Bunny.” In a similar way, the Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park has thrived for years on the reputation that, yes it is free public Shakespeare, but its also a chance to see Al Pacino and Gwyneth Paltrow outdoors and (reasonably) up close. Its reputation is also bolstered by the knowledge that the long experience and deep pockets of the Public (a venue which is normally not at all free) is supporting the work.

    Still, Shakespeare in the Park organizations around the country succeed in drawing crowds to the parks for free theater without the benefit of Al Pacino, so there is definitely something to the “blue sky” effect.

    And I also want to say, thank you for reminding us that it can be easy to get so focused on price as an indicator of value that we forget to evaluate the other core ingredients that help to generate demand and create patron excitement. Price is important (and often neglected in small non-profit performance) but it is not the only metric by which people measure the value of our work.