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Rethinking Theatre’s Purpose

I recently became more familiar with Mixed Blood Theatre Company after reading Love Person by Aditi Kapil, who is a resident artist at Mixed Blood and produced the premiere of her play there. I was struck by their awesome commitment to making theatre accessible in their community by offering both a physically accessible space and participating in a “Radical Hospitality” initiative which entails charging no fee for their tickets except for those reserved for optional advanced seating. So when I saw that Kapil recently wrote an article for Howlround which detailed the process and benefits of that initiative, I knew I had to check it out.

Something that struck me immediately was this notion that charging no money for tickets was actually more beneficial than just lowering the cost of tickets. This was partly due to the fact that other companies were more willing to fund Mixed Blood when they viewed them as an organization which existed to provide the service of theatre to their community for free and not as a theatre which sold low-cost tickets. Contributors Amanda White Thietje and Jack Reuler elaborate on this notion:

JR: In the early explorations of a new model, we discovered that “free is cheaper than cheap!” What that means is that the infrastructure needed to have five dollar tickets cost a lot more (in terms of staff and data) than no-cost admission.

AWT: It turned out that Radical Hospitality created a social service effort in addition to an arts effort, so we were able to expand our prospecting. Companies came in who may not have been interested in funding an arts organization, but who were interested in funding social service efforts. Allianz, for instance, participated in the transportation fund, and even more significantly, agreed with us that access to the arts is a quality of life issue. So being able to really expand our funding base has been central to our success.

This demonstrates to me that Mixed Blood is interested in theatre that engages with each and every facet of their community, and that it has a social obligation to do so. By taking the cost factor out of who can comprise their audience, they move closer to their own ideal, and in doing so inspire philanthropy from other organizations interested in benefiting their community too. The challenge here lies in proving that their work is beneficial to the community, which starts with community engagement. If a theatre company is truly integrated into its community, then it has a dialogue with its audience, is aware of what they want, and is consistently working on meeting their needs. I believe that Mixed Blood works directly in this notion and produces work that reflects that. This is what I think regional theatre should be: a product of the community of which it is a part and not simply a faraway building to house Broadway hits. I am also very happy that Mixed Blood has taken pride in breaking even using this model, and hope that other theatre companies can follow in their example.

However, given that, another article I came across proved especially interesting. It was about how the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia recently lowered the cost of all its tickets to $25. Both the Wilma and Mixed Blood looked to the Signature Theatre in New York as their model, so it is interesting to see each respond differently. Managing Director James Haskins elaborates on their choice:

The new program speaks to broader institutional ambitions. “We want our audience to reflect the work we put on stage and the local community of Philadelphia,” he said. “We are looking to diversify our audience in terms of ethnicity, in terms of age . . . and we think that a more egalitarian price structure will be able to do that.”

The Wilma looked at affordable ticket programs at theaters in London, Boston, Brooklyn, and Minneapolis, and ended up fashioning its $25 ticket initiative after a similar one at Signature Theatre Company in New York, which began a subsidized ticket program in 2005 and has committed to continuing it through 2022.

The Wilma and Mixed Blood, then, seem to share similar goals AND similar inspirations, but they have chosen to implement different forms. Mixed Blood asserts that they are a theatre company which stresses and encourages risk, making their Radical Hospitality initiative truly “radical” if like-minded regional theaters respond more safely to the same impetus. However, I commend regional theaters for wanting to expand their audiences, and am excited that steps are being taken across the board – to whatever extent – to find sustainable and creative solutions to the rising cost of tickets.

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About oliviahaller

Olivia is a DC-based actor, playwright, dramaturg, and producer.

One comment on “Rethinking Theatre’s Purpose

  1. Has anyone else seen Roman Tragedies by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam? Here’s an interesting review:

    https://theconversation.com/adelaide-festival-2014-review-roman-tragedies-23819

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