What's seeing a show worth to you? Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage will let you choose the ticket price.
Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series for Arts Access examining the health and well-being of our North Texas arts economy.
Remember last August, when American cinema chains offered $3 tickets for one day? They were eager for all of us to turn off Netflix, get out of the house and get back into their seats.
And it worked — for that day, at any rate. What Amphibian Stage is doing with its new season isn't exactly like that. To be sure, the theater — like many others in North Texas — has offered pay-what-you-can performances or previews. These were designed to crank up some business, possibly even get excited word-of-mouth started.
But for a theater company to turn over its entire new season to a ticket format that'll allow patrons to choose among three or four different "price points" for its various series (main stage, stand-up comics, National Theatre Live) — that seems to be a first hereabouts.
According to artistic director Kathleen Culebro, she learned about such a pick-and-choose ticketing model from online conversations with other theater directors across the country.
"I learned about the impact that these types of pricing models had on attendance," Culebro said, "not just increased numbers, but those younger audiences and the diverse audiences that everyone's wanting to attract."
So this new, tiered-ticketing format is about access, she said. It's about removing barriers for people, particularly young people who might be stymied by a $40 ticket.
"We don't do big-scale musicals like "Hamilton" that draw hundreds and thousands," Culebro said. "We do smaller, quieter shows that many people may find really interesting, but then how are we going to attract them if the ticket price is such an issue?"
So Amphibian is offering different levels throughout its season: the Low-Cost Ticket, the Discounted Ticket, the Pay-It-Forward Ticket, the Standard Ticket.
The box office will not be judging people on their choices, Culebro said. "We know our patrons will choose the level that is right for them. We’re just excited to bring more people in the door."
But there is a possible downside to all this. And it's not actually about people cheaping out, paying so little it hurts the theater's bottom line — although revenue may dip enough, Culebro said, that it'll cause board members to panic.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York's Public Theater, framed the real issue years ago. He speculated that it would be possible to raise enough money from wealthy donors, enough money to make all of the Public's stage offerings free to the general public.
But what if you remove that final cost barrier, he asked, and there's no reason keeping people from attending your shows anymore — and they still don't come?
It would say, Eustis said, something really scary. That your theater isn't offering people what they really want or need.
"Absolutely," Culebro said. "Pricing is just one part of the equation. So is programming."
And so is outreach — to counter widespread assumptions about the arts being insular, elitist, difficult to access or understand.
"For a large part of our audience," Culebro said, "going out to the theater or a museum on a weekend isn't even an option in their minds."
Making that choice affordable is one way to get that possibiliy into people's minds, she said.
But she doesn't think, "we're going to open our doors on the first day and people will be lined up going, 'Gosh, I was just waiting for you to lower your ticket prices.' I think that there is trust to be built among the arts and patrons of all kinds. And that kind of trust-building will be a long exercise."
Tiered Ticket Prices for Amphibian's 2023 Season by Series
- Main Stage General Admission: $15, 25, 40, 60
- Stand-Up Comic Residency General Admission: $15, 22, 30
- National Theatre Live General Admission: $10, 15, 20, 25
- SparkFest General Admission: $10, 15, 20, 25