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This NYC theater set ticket prices at $35 and sold a million of them

This NYC theater set ticket prices at $35 and sold a million of them
[Photo: Merch HÜSEY/Unsplash]

One of the most hotly debated topics in the theater industry is ticket prices. Set them too low and your venue can’t afford to stay afloat. Set them too high and your shows become out of reach for anyone without a disposable income. It’s a dilemma that cuts to the heart of big existential questions about the arts and culture: Who gets access and who gets to participate?

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New York’s Signature Theatre Company sought to tackle those questions 14 years ago with its innovative Signature Ticket Initiative, a program that offers unrestricted access to super-cheap theater prices (currently $35) no questions asked. No age restrictions. No lotteries. No rush lines. Just quality plays for a fraction of what you would typically pay to see a show in Manhattan.

Today, the off-Broadway theater company is celebrating its one millionth ticket sold through the initiative, and the company says its audience demographics speak to the program’s success. Almost 60% of Signature’s audience members had a two-person household that makes under $100,000 a year. Contrast that to a typical Broadway-goer who comes from a two-person household that makes more than twice that, according to stats from the Broadway League.

Moreover, almost a third of a Signature’s audiences are under the age of 50, and 28% are people of color. And perhaps most impressively, 15% of ticket buyers last season were new to Signature, a sign that the initiative is helping at least some people discover the joy of live theater for the first time.

“We don’t think that price should be a barrier to entry for the arts and culture,” Harold Wolpert, Signature’s executive director, told Fast Company.

Of course, most theaters in pricey New York couldn’t afford to simply slash the cost of admission without going out of business, so how does Signature pull it off? The ticket initiative is subsidized with contributions from the audience and institutional partners, including the Pershing Square Foundation, the philanthropic organization founded by Bill Ackman and Karen Ann Herskovitz.

The foundation was so impressed with the low-cost ticket initiative that it announced a $25 million gift to fund the program in 2012, the largest single gift it had ever given to an arts organization.

But low prices are only one part of the equation when it comes to theater inclusivity. The other component is producing work that actually speaks to diverse communities. On that front, Wolpert says Signature will produce five plays next season that are written by women of color, and one of its current resident playwrights, Dominique Morisseau, even took advantage of the ticket initiative as a struggling performer more than a decade ago—back when tickets were $15 a pop. This month, Morisseau earned a Tony nomination for the musical Ain’t Too Proud.

“You can imagine there are other artists out there like Dominique who would not be able to be introduced to the kind of work we do without the ticket initiative,” Wolpert says. “Then come forward, and here she is one of our own writers.”

Convinced? Check out a Signature show this season and help it sell its next million.

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