In mid-October, I had the chance to see Raoul Bhaneja perform Hamlet: solo at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. I went with Nancy Kenny and Linda Bedford, and we ran into (amongst others) local actor Corry Burke, who was at the time pursuing a seat on Ottawa City Council. After the performance, the four of us retired to the Royal Oak on Wellington to discuss politics, theatre, and marketing.
Here is the question I put to the table: all other things being equal, would you rather sell out every night of a two-week theatre production at 10% profit per ticket, or have half-houses every night for four weeks at 25% profit per ticket?
Mr. Burke (who is an awfully good sport for having put up with my spirited soapboxery) chose the latter. I asked him why. He replied that he wanted everyone who wanted to see a production to be able to see it.
I can think of no more noble and artistically motivated answer.
Unfortunately, this is not economically sound thinking, and would doom a professional theatre*, casting its actors, crew, and production staff into penury.
The trouble is this: you cannot warehouse theatre. It does not store well. There are no “leftovers”. There is no surplus. An essential component of theatre—and a key factor in its value—is time.
To the degree that something is scarce, it will become valuable. Reduced supply mimics, and in many cases causes, increased demand. This applies to any commodity (oil, gold, sugar, water even), and to entertainment as well. Music, film, television—any of the recording arts—currently find themselves devalued because their scarcity (limitation of supply) is threatened by almost limitless copying. This is much less possible with theatre. Therefore it is quite simple to manufacture an artificial scarcity.
If the concept of creating an artificial scarcity of theatre seems unethical to you, get away from the box office. You shouldn’t be anywhere near the money flow in a theatre if you are at all squeamish about turning people away at the door. An artificial scarcity of wheat is unethical; it places the value of money over that of human life. That’s different. Nobody is going to die because they didn’t get to see a play**.
The ideal scene of a performance run is not that everyone who wants to get in gets in, and there are seats left over. That is a waste. You can’t save those seats for later. The ideal scene is that the show sells out every night, the theatre is full to capacity, people are turned away at the door, and the house is worried about the fire marshal showing up.
Of course, a sold-out house means different things in different venues. Can your performance sell out the National Arts Centre? The GCTC? Fifty seats in an art gallery? The wrong way to approach this problem is to attempt to sell 500 tickets to an experimental play by an unknown local author (or worse, Yet Another Romeo and Juliet—although that may stand a chance). Choose your capacity so that it does sell out, and it will***.
You think that people coming out of a good play are your best advertisement? Try the ones that couldn’t get in! They’re free—and they’re loud.
Imagine running a theatre without having to discount last-minute tickets. Imagine having to extend a run because of popular demand.
Sold-out houses lead to advance ticket sales in the future.
And if you’re selling out, there will be a future.
* Barring the case of government subsidization, which establishes a welfare state for the arts. But that is a topic for another day.
** Of course, now someone is going to die just because they didn’t get to see a play, just to be obstinate.
*** There is, by the way, an equation to figure out what the most economically efficient length of run for a given capacity theatre is, taking publicity into account. Remind me to share it with you sometime.