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'Radical hospitality': Mixed Blood experiments with a new model for theater

Monday night Jack Reuler, the artistic director of the Mixed Blood Theatre, made a rather startling announcement: There will be no charge for any of the theater's mainstage shows for the coming season. And the ticket costs for mainstage shows for the season after that? Zero dollars. And the season after that? The same.

Reuler is calling this decision "radical hospitality," and he explained to reporters that this was an extension of the mission that originally inspired the theater, which was a response to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for true egalitarianism.

While the Mixed Blood has never really seemed to lack for an audience — every time I have been there, it's had a healthy attendance, and often sold out — Reuler realized that ticket costs were a barrier to attendance for many theatergoers. This has been the source of considerable discussion in the theater world, as tickets prices have, on the whole, been rising, which risks discouraging any number of potential audience members. Obviously, among these would be the poor, and this may be where Reuler's announcement is most consistent with King's message. In the last year's of his life, King's focus was primarily on issues of poverty, after all.


Allowing higher ticket prices also runs the risk of alienating audiences who might have the money but not be committed enough to plays to spend it — including young audience members, whom theaters have had a hard time attracting. Theater producers often look at these audience members and say, well, how much do they spend on rock concerts? And it's true, a young person might be willing to fork over $70 to see Lady Gaga, so why wouldn't they be willing to pony up $20 to see a play? And the answer is: They just aren't. For people who don't regularly attend theater, $20 is a lot of money to commit to something they're not sure they enjoy.

Reuler's experiment is a bold one. But, then, it's not suicidal.  According to an interview Reuler did with MPR, the theater makes only 15-18 percent of its $1.4 million budget from box-office receipts. Although that's somewhere in the vicinity of $200,000 — income the theater will have to make up from other sources, which is nothing to sneeze at — it's also an amount that is doable.

It's also the sort of decision that is likely to send other theaters into a panic. The Star Tribune offered a story about Mixed Blood's new box-office policy, and commenters immediately started to fret that this would make it impossible for the theater to pay its  staff, and that this would devalue ticket prices everywhere. They worried that Reuler was setting new expectations as to how much theater should cost, and that expectation is that it should cost nothing.

This is always the worry, and I suppose in a regular marketplace, if you can get a hammer for free at one store, you're not going to buy it at a store that charges $20 for the same hammer. But, then, art is not a hammer. There are plenty of opportunities to see free music in the Twin Cities, and yet people still shell out for Lady Gaga. We can watch movies for free on television, or for pennies online, and yet people still go to movie theaters. The amount one place, or artist, charges for access to art does not necessarily set the price elsewhere.

But that doesn't mean Reuler's experiment won't affect ticket prices elsewhere. If his experiment is successful at attracting new audiences, other theaters might choose to follow, in part, by offering a "pay what you can" show for each production, or in whole, by charging nothing for tickets. American theater is in a panic about its audiences, which have steadily been declining for a while now, and may be ready to try anything. There are a lot of organizations out there that offer arts grants, and there are a lot of ways to raise money for a play besides charging tickets. If Reuler's experiment is successful, we might see arts funding organizations and theaters shift toward finding a way to pay for free tickets.

And there is no reason to think it won't be successful. Pillsbury House Theatre made all of its performances of "Broke-ology" pay-what-you can, and its attendance increased by 50 percent. The Walker Art Center offers free Thursdays, and the Minnesota Institute of Arts always has free admissions to the majority of the museum, charging only for special shows. It is very possible to offer free admission and remain financially afloat, or even thrive.

I have had complaints in the past about the development of the nonprofit institution in American theater, which I think, as a whole, has not been very good for American playwrights; Reuler's experiment, if anything, simply serves to strengthen the nonprofit model. But, then, I can't really complain about Mixed Blood, which tends to debut more new plays and plays by local playwrights than anybody. Additionally, it has helped pioneer some techniques that will guarantee that new plays don't have the abbreviated lifespans that many suffer.

For instance, theaters are notorious about only being interested in a new play if they can premiere it, which means many new plays get exactly one production and then are never heard from again. But Mixed Blood has been experimenting with rolling premieres, where a play opens at the Mixed Blood and then quickly moves to another theater in another state, where it enjoys a regional premiere there, and then on to another theater for another regional premiere. I can't tell you whether these rolling premieres do more than expand a play's life from one production to three, but the fact that Mixed Blood is willing to invest in this sort of experiment is commendable. And Mixed Blood heavily promotes its playwrights, which is often, to other theaters, an afterthought. If there is a model for the way a theater should work with new playwrights and new plays, Mixed Blood might be it.

I don't agree with people who are concerned that Mixed Blood's box-office experiment may devalue theater. If anything, it will re-value audiences, which is an especially precious resource for theater, which is, after all, a live event. It is possible that Reuler is going to build a new audience for Twin Cities theaters that expects to pay nothing for a play, and that theaters will have to rejigger their own funding to likewise attract this audience. I don't think it's likely, but it is possible. It's a heck of a trade-off for theaters to contemplate, as many of them are already struggling with funding and would dread to slash their box-office receipts. But so be it. The current nonprofit model has been popular since at least the '60s, and worked pretty well for a half-century, but business models don't work forever.

This is a good time for bold experimentation, and it's heartening that this sort of dramatic experiment in funding is happening at an established theater, as it is usually the provenence of small theater companies, where it can be hard to gauge the success of an experiment. If Reuler and company can attract a new audience and not go bust in the process, this may be an experiment that is worth repeating at other theaters.

Cleopatra: Queen of Sex
Courtesy of Nippon Herald Movies
Cleopatra: Queen of Sex

There is absolutely no way to craftily transition into my next subject, so I'm just going to go ahead and say it: There is an X-rated animated film playing at the Trylon Microcinema tonight, and I think you should go. The film is called "Cleopatra: Queen of Sex." (NSFW trailer here.) I should note the X-rating was self-applied, as the film came out in America in the early '60s, when the similarly X-rated "Fritz the Cat" was attracting a lot of attention, and when X-rated still meant "adult subject matter," and not "hard-core porn." So this film has, mostly, a lot of naked breasts. The film is, in fact, Japanese and the work of Osamu Tezuka, who created "Astro Boy." But it's worth seeing being it's a genuine oddity, a cultural artifact of a time when frank sexual discussion was on the table for investigation in the popular arts, which didn't last very long at all.

As a result, we end up with a strange lampoon of the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as told from the point of view of time travelers who can go back and inhabit the bodies of the people of the past, and who bring with them the technology of the future. To Tezuka, ancient Egypt was inhabited entirely by ridiculous sexual stereotypes and driven by passions that wouldn't look out of place in a Russ Meyer film, and the ancients battled each other with machine guns and tanks.

The film was poorly marketed in the U.S. — people went for the novelty of seeing cartoon characters engage in graphic coitus, which is in scant supply here. The film should have been marketed differently. It's weird and hilarious, and its soundtrack is a mix of Iron Butterfly-style psychedelic noodlings and an Ennio Morricone-style take on the sort of music that typically plays behind a big ancient epic. It would have made a dynamite midnight movie.

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Comments (1)

Very interesting. From my vantage point, I see an analogy with college tuition. Non-profit colleges charge tuitions that are only a fraction of the cost, in some cases a quite small fraction. There has been lots of experimentation with various forms of discounting, including all the way to full free rides for select students, which is perhaps a very rough analog to free Thursdays at the Walker. But only a very few, very bold colleges have been willing to go all the way to totally eliminating tuition, even though others would be financially able to. The college acts as a vehicle for philanthropists to give a gift of education to the students, but the philanthropists want to know that their gift is going to recipients who appreciate it and will give it the attention it deserves. Having students put up some "matching funds" of their own (that is, pay tuition that is a fraction of the cost) provides that signal to the philanthropists that what they are giving is something that is valued. Presumably the same is true with cultural institutions such as a theatre. But there may be a key difference. Many people who go to college come from socio-economic groups where they are expected to attend. As such, if tuition were free, they would likely expend their time on attending, even if they didn't value the education. Whereas with theatre attendance, the time cost might be enough to discourage attendance by those who don't value the experience, because they don't face the same expectation of attendance.