I just found out about Forum Theatre’s new ”Forum For All” ticket policy, and I just had to write about it. Essentially, Forum Theatre has decided to institute what amounts to a “Pay What You Want” approach to ticket sales, an approach that addresses Washington theatre’s most pressing problem–the high cost of tickets and the subsequent limiting of audience demographics to mainly the well-to-do.
Patrons can still reserve seats in advance for Forum’s already low regular ticket price of $20; but, beginning an hour prior to curtain, tickets will be sold at the door on a “first come first served” basis. The price for these tickets will be set by the individual theatre-goers. They can pay a dollar, ten dollars, or even a hundred dollars. In other words, the theatre-goer decides what is fair and affordable based on his or her individual circumstances.
There is little doubt that over the last few decades professional theatre in America (and definitely in Washington) has played to increasingly exclusive audiences. As ticket prices rise and audiences’ economic diversity narrows, the range of topics and characters presented on our stages declines. Go to any Washington theatre and odds are small that you’ll see anything resembling the struggles of average Americans. To be sure, occasionally the relevant show breaks through—Studio’s The Mother****er with the Hat, Arena’s Good People, and Forum’s own Clementine in the Lower 9 to name a few shows last season that reached out to the common man or woman—but most shows reflect a world that barely resembles our post-economic recession of 2008 reality.
Thus, it makes sense that Forum Theatre, one of several theatres in town dedicated to developing meaningful dialogue with its community of supporters, would break through the ticket price barrier with a bold new initiative. Ironically, however, their already low ticket prices make their productions already one of the more affordable, high quality theatrical experiences in the city.
What the other metro area theatres think of this new policy will certainly be determined in part by its success. Theatre remains an expensive, labor-intensive artistic operation. Film and its celebrity status continue to affect negatively the aesthetics of theatre. Yet, people who work in theatre (not film) continue to struggle to make ends meet. So the real questions are: 1) Will Forum increase its audience with this bold move? 2) Will audience members appreciate the amount of work that goes into a good theatrical production and pay enough for those tickets to support the artists? and 3) Will professional theatre’s audiences expand beyond their relatively low 3% of the general population?
Whatever the results of Forum’s initiative, I am taking my hat off and giving them a deep bow. Having raised a family on an artist / teacher’s salary for many years I just could not afford the cost of theatre tickets. I went only on pay-what-you-can nights or when a free offer came my way. Over the years I have also watched with increasing chagrin as theatre’s themes and situations have become more and more irrelevant to the average citizen, making theatre something the average person might want to see for its spectacle, but rarely for its content.
I can only hope that Forum’s move will successfully address the ticket issue and, having addressed that, then open the door to the second issue, and thus expand theatre’s repertoire of discourse. If so, the future of theatre in Washington will indeed be vital.