Week 1 is previews. Pretty much nobody comes. Maybe there's a discount, but few people take advantage of it because maybe they don't know about it, or the artistic team is feeling gun-shy and is soft-pedaling previews. But mostly the audience feels like they have FOUR LUXURIOUS WEEKS to come see the show. So the house runs at half-capacity even with discounting.
Week 2 is opening. Since press will be coming, the theater shoves the house full of comp tickets for friends. The houses are full, but the theater isn't making any money because of the comps.
Week 3 is the beginning of the actual run. There's a still period between opening and review publications, during which the houses go disappointingly back down to half. And the theater prays for a good review.
In Week 4 a few things might happen:
A) The reviews are raves and the theater is chock-full for a week, with fully-priced tickets. Maybe an extension is possible, but usually not, given the theater's schedule and budget.
B) The reviews are middling. The e-blast goes through some grammatical acrobatics to judiciously pluck out an innocuous-seeming pull quote, and the houses go back to half.
C) The reviews are terrible and the theater goes back to offering comps. But everyone knows what comps in Week 4 means, and the houses are barren.
You've probably seen this model in action, but I mention all this in order to establish a basis of understanding when I posit the following:
1) This is not an efficient use of resources;
2) Comps may not be doing what we think they're doing;
3) We're giving too much power to reviewers; and
4) We have to do more to make each play feel like an EVENT.
I'm totally sympathetic to the plight of the small theater. There's very little budget and it's already HARD AS HELL to get people to come and see shows. But I wonder if maybe the established methodology sets us up for failure. In Week 4, even under the best of circumstances, demand vastly exceeds supply. For every other week, we act as though supply exceeds demand as if it's a foregone conclusion. But if it's a foregone conclusion then why did we mount the show in the first place?
How do theaters without subscribers front-load the audience in the first couple weeks so that word of mouth can accomplish the rest? Soho Rep is actually pretty terrific at doing that. Between 99-cent Sundays (which sell out immediately), early and sustained discounting, and several advanced featurettes on upcoming plays, they're really good at making it feel like you have to see their next play - like somehow this play you've never even heard of is already in high demand. Then if the play is a hit, they extend and extend and charge an arm and a leg for it. In other words, they make the play feel like an event, then capitalize on the successes rather than cutting off the play before it's even had its full time in the sun.
How can we deploy discounts in a more targeted way? Theaters are quick to cut off the discount codes, but I don't think we're good at getting granular about the data. Yes, we use the web to track the reach of our discount codes, but by going granular what I mean is that we ought to be looking at how much total income is possible, how much total seating is possible, and how we can pair discounting and seating such that we make as much money as possible while keeping the audiences as full as possible, on a consistent basis. Like isn't it better to make $30 from 50 people, rather than $50 from 5 people? For some reason, we'd rather let our theaters stay empty just to chase the possibility of some full-priced sales or walkups, rather than jamming the house full of group sales and discount-hunters.
Do other industries have ticketing models that we can co-opt? What about airline sales, which use discounts that incentivize either booking early or booking at the last minute in order to reach capacity? Also, seat prices rise as the plane fills up - if we did that in the theater, wouldn't it normalize house sizes? Or what about the recent move towards dynamic pricing in sports ticketing? What about trying to capture different audiences using different advertising tactics, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach?
And comps. Are they really helping us as much as we think they are? First of all, what are the ethics of giving out comps to a select group of our friends, when we claim that our goal is to get people into the theater who never see shows? Why do we feel it necessary to create a Potempkin village of ravenous fans while the critics are watching, even though the critics might STILL PAN THE PLAY? If we let our friends in for free, aren't we in essence underselling their interest when they might have been willing to see the show anyhow (perhaps not at cost, but probably at a cost higher than $0)? And when we offer comps in Week 4, essentially we're conceding that, "The press says this play sucks, so now I believe that it sucks, and therefore the value is $0." Nobody's going to buy tickets to a show that you've given up on.
How do we deploy the limited advertising reach that we have available to us so that it's more effective? We say, "the NYT holds too much power over theater," but in weeks 2 and 3 all we're doing is wringing our hands and catering to reviewers. I absolutely believe that the NYT is providing vital coverage of what we do, but their coverage shouldn't be leading the art. But when all of our marketing devolves into nothing more than a review-response tactic, that's essentially what we're letting them do. We concede that the value they place on our art is the actual value.
I don't have the answers to this. These are hard problems and I want to acknowledge that it is HARD HARD HARD being a small company and getting people to care about shows. Which is why it's time to analyze whether this model of "Discount, Comp, Pray, Close" can be reconfigured, so that what little resources we have available can be spent more efficiently.
But most importantly, I think we're using comps and reviews as a crutch. We're marketing shows from a place of paucity and apology. We have to value the work, even if it means discounting ticket prices to fill up the houses, and even if reviewers disagree with our passion. Because if we can't stay passionate about our own work, nobody else will.
PS about Comps: As a conscientious consumer, I try not to use comps. Yes, that's a financially ridiculous statement (especially given my finances), and yes it's important to see as many shows as possible in order to know what's out there. But please know that paying to see a play is a political act: you are voting for the work with your dollars. It's hard to pay for a show when you can get it for free, but adventurous, diverse, and socially progressive work is exceedingly rare. We have to place a value on work we believe in, tempting as it may be to see it for free.