Tracey Cruickshank, Audience Development and Marketing Officer at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, describes how they are giving audiences the chance to pay only what they think the artistic experience is worth.
Wild Card Night at The Nuffield is an initiative I set up in May 2010 to encourage our audiences to try something new, consider what theatre means to them, and what they think the experience is worth, both in monetary and less tangible terms. Payment could then be made at the end of the performance, based on what the audience member thought the experience was worth.
The idea first came about through speaking to Stephen Birch, Marketing Manager at The Theatre, Chipping Norton. He used to run ‘Wild Night’ in a bid to get his older more conservative audiences to give contemporary, ‘edgy’ work a chance. He said that, although it was a bit frightening to start with, it was largely doing well – both in terms of boosting audience numbers for more difficult work, and in terms of box office figures. It was also becoming something his patrons were looking out for each season.
The key is to choose something you are confident will appeal once experienced, and only to offer it for one night once a season. An added bonus is that, if the payments are given as donations, the theatre doesn’t have to pay tax, thus lowering some of the financial risk.
First of all, we tried it on a low risk production – namely our own production of Anthony and Cleopatra – and called it ‘Pay what it’s worth’. Audience members were invited to attend this special performance where, instead of paying for their tickets in advance, our Artistic Director Patrick Sandford introduced them to the concept of ‘Pay what it’s worth’ before the beginning of the play. At the end, there was the opportunity to discuss the play with the Patrick and members of the cast in the bar, and to decide how much they would like to pay for their night out.
I produced a flyer which was given to audience members as they went into the auditorium, giving them facts and figures for the production in a ‘Did you know?’-type format. Examples included how many hours went into rehearsal, how many years of training for all the staff involved, interesting facts about the set, and how much it cost to put on.
We collected the money in buckets at all the doors as the audience exited, also keeping the box office open during the interval and after the show to allow people to pay by card, should they wish to.
Overall, it was a successful night, with some good feedback and engagement from the audience, good audience numbers and fairly good box office figures – numbers were higher, but the yield per ticket was slightly lower. Most people gave something, and quite a few gave at least the standard ticket price. Some had already decided what they were paying and paid before the performance!
Having discussed the outcomes of the initial attempt, we decided to rebrand it as ‘Wild Card Night’, partly because it sounded more exciting, but also to avoid confusion with our ‘Pay what you can’ evenings during the season (some members of the audience were not grasping the difference between the two concepts).
We adopted the Joker playing card as a symbol, and had this in the brochure on the relevant show page; we put it on signs held by our ushers when they were collecting to make it easier for the audience to spot, and used it in all marketing such as advertising and emails.
We also decided that it really had to be attached to a piece that was high-quality, but that could be perceived as ‘difficult’ or ‘not for me’. So we used Maison Foo’s Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin in one season, and Gecko’s Missing in another. This season we are using it for Miss Nightingale – a Burlesque Musical, produced by Mr Bugg.
Each time we’ve attached it to a ‘Meet the cast’ night, so there’s added value for the audience, and I have all the facts and figures for the flyer from the company in advance. So far, the visiting companies involved have been very enthusiastic about the idea, and the ‘Meet the cast events’ after the show have been much fuller and elicited more engagement than usual. I’ve also been aware of quite a varied audience for each performance. In terms of audience numbers and money, the shows have continued to follow the pattern of a higher number attending with a slightly lower yield.
In each case it’s been a valuable opportunity for me to get feedback from audience members, as I’ve been in box office every time. More generally, I’ve also noticed that there seems to be much more discussion about what they have experienced, and a genuine buzz in the foyer. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any negative feedback, even if an audience member has decided the piece wasn’t really for them.
By being engaged on this level, and by being part of the pricing discussion and the less tangible ‘worth’ of theatre, together with the added value of the ‘Meet the cast’ event and the flyers, I believe that the majority of audiences have entered into the spirit of ‘Wild Card Night’ with enthusiasm, and have enjoyed taking a bit of a risk in order to experience something new and exciting.