Playwright Theresa Rebeck and Producer Michael Ritchie talk theatre, tickets, subscribers

One of the big mysteries of theatre is matching what’s being done on stage with what the public says it wants to see. That’s why this dialogue between a playwright and a producer is so fascinating.

Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy premiered at the 2008 Williamstown Theatre Festival. Later Elizabeth Aspenlieder won her Norton Award for best actress for her portrayal in Rebeck’s Bad Dates in the Shakespeare & Company production which went on to the Merrimack Rep in Lowell, MA.

Michael Ritchie is the artistic director of Center Theatre Group, overseeing the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in LA. He was born in Worcester, MA.

We came across the great discussion in Howlaround here (link), and reprint just a few choice snippets from a fascinating discussion about theatre . We urge you to go to the original two-way talk and read their thoughts on how to expand audiences, get rid of subscription stasis, and maximize ticket income.

Theresa Rebeck

Theresa: And how does the audience piece of it fit into it for you?

Michael: It’s a mix. Certainly we want an interested audience for all of our shows but if the audience were all we cared about we’d be commercial producers…One of the great problems with the subscription model is that because you are generally producing for a specific audience you can begin producing just for those people. Sometimes your taste gets sublimated by their taste. They’ve gotten their taste by coming to see things you’re doing and choosing, so it’s this tightening spiral of lesser ambitions when you feed that beast.

Theresa: It sounds to me like what you are trying to do is believe in your taste and believe that the audience will respond to it.

Michael: Yes and in some cases what you do is actually push the audience away. You have to do that strategically—you push a segment of your audience away to expand your audience.

Theresa: Do you vary your ticket prices?

Michael: Yup. It’s across the board. We have subscription packages; we have early buys; we have $20 tickets at every single show; we have medium priced tickets that we change on different nights; we do dynamic pricing like the airlines where demand will change.

Theresa: Oh, that’s cool. I’ve always wondered why people didn’t do that. If you have a hot show with Captain Kirk in it, charge an extra ten bucks.

Michael Ritchie

Michael: It’s tricky to pull off though — to suddenly start raising the price when you’re selling out. But we’re doing that now. The other thing that kills me about the subscription model is that you end up running your bombs and closing your hits because a year and a half in advance you’ve decided how long the run is going to be. So you’ve got a shitty show and it’s going to run for 8 weeks when you can close it in four and you’ve got a huge hit that could run 14 weeks but you’re closing it in eight.

Theresa: That’s crazy.

Michael: It kills me.

Theresa: So there’s still no solution to that yet?

Michael: What’s hard is that there is a solution to it, and this is what Lincoln Center [Theater] does with their membership program. They don’t plan a season. They go from show to show and depending upon demand will run it or close it. Going from a subscription model to a membership model is difficult to do in a seamless way. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do with Douglas Plus — push our subscribers into a membership model so that we can do it at the other theaters too.

Theresa: …I keep thinking, you have to bring the tickets down. They famously lowered prices at the National [in London] and they sell out all the time now. Is that model just impossible in America?

Michael: That I don’t know. I know it was a big deal when the National went to the ten-pound ticket. It was completely underwritten by Travelex so finding a sponsor to do it was part of it. All that government underwriting of the arts skews the equation too. When I arrived [at CTG] we had 19 different discount ticket programs — senior citizens, pay what you can, rush tickets, student tickets…and most of them had restrictions — bad seats, you couldn’t return them, you couldn’t exchange them. When I came in I said, we’re going to put in $20 tickets, that’s it. That’s the only discount program. $20 is reasonable; it’s twice the price of a movie. They have to be reasonably good seats. They have to be available online and you have to be able to exchange them. They’re just lower priced tickets. We immediately started selling more tickets because of that. The fear was that the people buying $80 tickets would start buying $20 tickets, but that didn’t happen. The people who are buying $80 tickets are happy buying $80 tickets. So you’re not cannibalizing your existing audience — you’re bringing in a newer audience and it’s generally younger.

The full interview:

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