How Much is Theater Worth?

At Azuka, you don't decide what to pay until after the show.

Azuka Theatre tested the new ticketing model in the spring with Moth. Photo by Johanna Austin

Azuka Theatre tested the new ticketing model in the spring with Moth. Photo by Johanna Austin

When Azuka Theatre kicks off its fall season with Idris Goodwin’s How We Got On, the seats will be filled with patrons who haven’t paid a dime — and don’t have to. The theater company is doing away with the traditional ticketing system in favor of two full seasons of “pay-what-you-decide” shows. And while they’re hoping you do decide to pay, the primary goal is drawing in new audiences.

“This isn’t free theater, but we understand not everyone has $30 to $40, or more, to be part of the experience,” says Azuka’s co-founder and marketing director Mark H. Andrews. “We want to increase and diversify our audiences — create an opportunity for anyone to see our work without it becoming a choice of affordability.”

The Barra Foundation is supporting the initiative, which is based on a model from the ARC Stockton Arts Centre in England, with a $55,000 grant.

With the new system, you reserve a ticket as usual but don’t pay anything until after the show, either on-site at the Drake — home to Azuka and four other theater companies — or through Azuka’s website. There won’t be a suggested pricing scale.

“We chose not to set any guidelines for what audiences will pay; we thought that would create an atmosphere counter to what we’re trying to achieve,” says producing artistic director Kevin Glaccum. “We want the audience to have control over what they pay, basing it on the experience they just had rather than on what we think they should be paying.”

As for what happens if an audience member feels the experience wasn’t worth much, at least not in cash, Azuka is keeping that risk in mind but looking at the bigger picture. The company tested the new system at the end of last season, during the first week of Moth.

“We had to remain confident and accepting of the fact that, even if someone didn’t pay, it wasn’t necessarily a reflection of the work,” Andrews says. “We don’t always know if someone has the ability to pay. [But] the majority of the people who walk through our doors do chip in something, and the point is we want to share our work and the work of our artists with as many people as we can.”

Theatre Horizon in Norristown is also trying out the pay-what-you-want method, on a smaller scale, during its concert reading on August 4 of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The performance will feature a mix of local and Broadway actors.

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