Seattle's Intiman Theatre has a new plan to grow audiences: Give away all the tickets. For free.
Ever since the 2008 recession, arts funding has been on the decline. Coupled with the rise in digital entertainment options, cultural organizations have been trying to figure out how to attract and retain audiences.
To address the problem, Seattle’s Intiman Theatre has come up with a novel — and perhaps radical — plan: The nonprofit organization plans to give away tickets to its next production. All of them. For free.
Intiman’s executive director, Phillip Chavira, says this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. He sees it as the best way to increase access to Intiman’s artistic output.
“Providing free tickets is one step to removing barriers to access,” says Chavira. "It’s one step, but it’s the largest we can take.”
In July, Intiman will present the two-person drama “Events,” inspired by the 2011 mass shooting in Norway. Intiman artistic director Jennifer Zeyl says that even though the tickets will be free, Intiman will honor its existing union contracts with actors and backstage artists.
If the theater company succeeds in its mission to attract new audiences and stay on an even financial keel, Intiman says it could extend the free tickets policy to future productions.
Giving away your product for free, however, is not without risks.
Most nonprofit arts groups operate with funds from three main sources: ticket sales (earned income), private donations from individuals and businesses (contributed income) and various public granting agencies.
Chavira says only 20% of Intiman’s operating budget has come from earned income. He’s confident they can raise that amount, or more, from people who share the company’s vision of free access to professionally made art.
Intiman’s board of directors approved the free ticket initiative earlier this year, after the company finally retired an outstanding debt of almost $2 million.
The debt dated back at least a decade, and financial problems had forced Intiman’s temporary closure in 2011. When the theater company reopened the next year, it pledged to pay back its debt while operating with lean annual budgets raised before the company committed to each artistic season.
Once the debt burden was out of the way, Chavira and Zeyl were free to dream about a new path for Intiman.
“And we were sort of ‘What are we doing now?’" says Zeyl. "Are we going to break ground on another arts monolith?”
They decided to buck the traditional wisdom and try something completely new.
“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing empty seats in our theaters,” says Chavira. “I think we do a disservice in the nonprofit arts: We ask you to participate in this amazing art, but ask you for a fee.”
To Chavira and Zeyl, giving away tickets is about more than simply expanding their audience.
They see it as a concrete manifestation of the theater company’s mission statement: to wrestle with American inequities.