Q&A with City Theatre: #PayWhatYourWant and Radical Hospitality in the Arts

Pay What You Can Tickets
The Revolutionists. Photo credit Kristi Jan Hoover.
Left to right are Daina Michelle Griffith as Olympe de Gouges, Moira Quigley as Charlotte Corday, Drew Leigh Williams as Marie Antoinette, and Shamika Cotton as Marianne Angelle.

Affordability has been a frequent factor for many of my arts and cultural decisions over the years. As a disabled social worker, my income only stretches so far and has historically been constrained by my profession. My first trip to City Theatre was as an invited guest of a dear friend in 2003 and I found it to be a wonderful venue. But is isn’t in my income bracket.

I’m privileged that as a blogger who writes about the arts community, I am often able to access events and performances as part of their media outreach. Ledcat also enjoys these events, we have a car, and can afford parking fees. And I have the time to write the promotional posts or the reviews. Here are some of my previous posts about this company.

A few years ago, a friend of mine in the local arts community told me that they had never attended a play in their lifetime. I was genuinely stunned and had to rethink how Pittsburgh’s cultural subcommunities are connected and accessible to one another. Cost of admission is one issue as well as associated costs like parking and/or public transport. It is not uncommon to see ‘pay what you can’ or ‘no one will be turned away’ options for a lot of community oriented programming, but not so common among the ‘high brow’ art institutions except for a few days throughout the year. There’s a difference between 1x year special access and regular affordable access.

There are other barriers, of course, but I reached out to City Theatre to discuss their Pay What You Want programming which aims to reduce this particular hurdle.

Your Name: Clare Drobot

Your Pronouns: She/Her

Your Affiliation with City Theatre: Director of New Play Development

What is the ‘Pay What You Want’ ticket policy? How does it work? We actually have two types of Pay What You Want initiatives. This first, allows audiences to purchase ‘Pick Your Price’ tickets to our preview performances (the first five performances of every production). Those can be purchased online or by phone in advance (tickets starts at $5 and patrons can select their own price in increments of $5) or at the box office prior to a performance. We also host a ‘Pay-What-You-Want’ performance at a Saturday at 1pm performance during the run. Those tickets are available starting 2 hours prior to curtain and must be purchased in person at the box office.

The arts are vital to our society—and that means they need to reflect the fullness of a community. Financial means should never be a barrier to arts access.

Why did the organization decide to implement this option permanently? We began the initial ‘Pay-What-You-Want’ performances during the 15/16 season and it became permanent in 16/17 when we added a 1pm curtain time. This was inspired by a similar initiative at Contemporary American Theater Festival where City’s Managing Director James McNeel worked prior to his tenure at City. In exploring how  we could expand that program and offer a greater accessibility to wider audience, we piloted the ‘Pick Your Price Previews’ program for the world premiere of Carla Ching’s Nomad Motel this past season. It was a hit and so we decided to bring it back for each show of the 2018/19 Season.

How has it been received? Do you notice any particular communities responding – for example, students or community groups? The results have been wonderful. Especially with the ‘Pick Your Price Previews’! For a theater that focuses on new work, we’re often asking audiences to take a risk on a play, so word of mouth is crucial to the success of our productions. We were close to selling out the first two previews of The Revolutionists and we’ve noticed that a large number of those ticket holders are new patrons to City. There’s also been a shift in the composition of our houses—it’s removing the barrier of the idea that theater isn’t affordable or open to all audiences.

Is this a trend in the arts world? Should we anticipate similar options from other Pittsburgh Cultural institutions? The concept of radical hospitality isn’t new, but I do think it’s something cultural institutions are wrestling with. In order for theater to remain vital, we have to remove any perceived barriers for entrance. It’s important to City that our audiences reflect the population of Pittsburgh and that we use theater as a way to bring audiences from varied backgrounds together fostering a vibrant community. I hope it’s something other institutions in Pittsburgh embrace as well and I know it’s at the forefront of conversations happening within the arts community in town.

Are you aware of any other Pittsburgh arts groups adopting a similar policy? Several companies in town offer similar programs including Kelly Strayhorn Theater, 12 Peer Theater, and Quantum Theater.

In the grassroots and community level performance community, I often see statements like ‘No one will be turned away for lack of funds’ or ‘Suggested Donation’ as well as ‘Pay What You Can’ as part of the ticketing/pricing information. It resonates with me because there have been many points in life when tickets were far out of reach and I appreciated the dignity of these statements. And I try to give back to those organizations and artists when I can – I pay full price or more, I donate, and I promote to help pay ‘what I can’ – what are other examples of how the community can support this policy? Having the opportunity to be part of that cycle—moving from being the beneficiary of a program like ‘pay what you want’ to supporting other patrons who utilize those programs makes for the ideal arts community. We have a number of ways for audience members to support City—the easiest is to add in a donation when you purchase your tickets. Even a few dollars can be a tremendous help and those small donations add up over time. There are also ways to get involved in our community engagement work. We provide discounted and subsidized tickets to partners in our City Connects program and we’re always excited to forge collaborations with new organizations and strengthen our ties to the community.

Why is it important that art be accessible to everyone? The arts are vital to our society—and that means they need to reflect the fullness of a community. Financial means should never be a barrier to arts access. Part of the magic of theater is its ability to engage and foster dialogue. We’re doing a disservice to patrons if we only serve like-minded audiences. You never know who you’ll sit next to at a performance and being open to differing responses and having a collective experience is the joy of live theater. It’s fundamental to the work City does and we’re dedicated to ensuring any and all can experience the work on our stages.

Where can readers find more information about this policy? Information on Pick Your Price Previews can be found on the individual production pages on City’s website: www.citytheatrecompany.org

The full list of Pay-What-You-Want performances is listed here: http://www.citytheatrecompany. org/pay-what-you-want

Tell us about the 2018/2019 season. The tag line for City’s 18/19 season is ‘your world, our stage’ and that’s at the heart of this season’s programming. These are stories directly in conversation with the lives of Pittsburghers. They chronicle everything from four badass women fighting to make their voices heard during the French Revolution to a moving investigation of a black mother’s fears for her son’s future to two retirees bonding over coffee and little law breaking. Our writers range from Broadway’s Stephen Belber and two of America’s most produced playwright Lauren Gunderson and Dominique Morisseau to voices our patrons might not be familiar with yet in CMU alumni Matt Schatz and actor/composer/playwright Brian Quijada. City is excited to serve as the nexus between the local and national theater communities, celebrating the talent here in Pittsburgh and cross pollinating that with artists from around the country. We’re also committed to equity as part of all our productions and each of this season’s creative teams feature diversity of race and gender.

Thank you, Clare.

You can stay in touch with City Theatre on social media

Twitter: @City_Theatre

Facebook: facebook.com/CityTheatreCompany

Instagram: @City_Theatre

YouTube: CityTheatreCompany

Be sure to check out the Pay What You Want initiatives and take some time to enjoy one of the region’s cultural gemstones.

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