By John Moore
Sept. 28, 2012
Earlier today, I solicited comment from Facebook followers on my anecdotal observation that the fall theater season in Colorado seems to be off to a sure-no-fire start. Some of the most anticipated new works of the fall appear to be playing to houses that are far more empty than full. The last four plays I have attended have averaged 22 people each.
A check of the Denver Center’s website shows that almost 500 tickets remain available tonight for its three homegrown offerings (“Fences,” “The Three Musketeers” and “Love, Perfect, Change”) on what should be a crowded Friday fall night at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. That doesn’t even account for a half-empty Buell Theatre hosting the touring production of “Stomp.”
Readers offered many intriguing possible reasons, including campaign burnout. But the leader, far and away, was a timeless culprit: It’s just too expensive in this stagnant economy. I’ve been a theater critic since 2000, so I’ve never done this when it hasn’t been a down economy. So surely there is more to it than that. But before we address other potential factors, let’s take a look at that No. 1 (with a killer bullet) reason offered.
I polled every theater that is offering a live theater production on this very night, and it turns out the average price for an adult ticket among the 40 companies is $33.18. That’s showing up at the door, with no advance discount.
That is somewhat inflated by the seven companies that offer dinner with a show (at an average of $49.71). Taking the dinner shows out, the cost to see a play or musical is still a hefty $29.67.
And theater companies will tell you that your ticket price typically pays for less than half of what it actually costs them to bring you their entertainment.
Some numbers jump out from this list: That the Arvada Center’s LOW ticket price is equal to the MOST expensive dinner-theater ticket ($59). Also becoming a major factor in same-day ticket buying these days is “dynamic pricing,” where companies drive up the cost of their precious last few remaining seats as demand rises – and curtain-time approaches. But with crowds way down at the Denver Center — “The Three Musketeers” opened just last night in the Stage Theatre, and tonight there are more than 250 available seats, according to the Denver Center’s web site, as of 3 p.m. today.
Personally, I’d love it if theater companies went more toward RUSH ticketing discounts in the hours before a show begins, rather than trying to maximize every last penny whenever the market allows for it. Does dynamic pricing make for long-term customers? I doubt it. Would $15 RUSH tickets for “Fences”? Possibly.
I also think this list bears out just how hard it is for commercial theaters to compete with the erroneously named “non-profit” theaters, when the only distinction between the two is that commercial theaters don’t qualify for public funding, and donations to them aren’t tax-deductible. More on that subject here.
I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on pricing, but I also want to impart some of the other factors readers offered up about this issue. So for now, here is the breakdown of ticket prices, and I’ll leave pricing at that. Please submit your own conclusions in response.
TICKET PRICES FOR CURRENTLY RUNNING PRODUCTIONS (listed in descending max-price order):
1. Arvada Center’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” $59-$73 (musical)
2. National touring production of “Stomp” $26-$62 (live music)
3. Denver Center Theatre Company’s “The Three Musketeers” $48-$58
4. Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Fences” $47-$57
5. Curious Theatre’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” $18-$44
6. Denver Center Attractions’ “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” $40 (musical)
6. Town Hall Arts Center’s “Sweet Charity” $20-$40 (musical)
8. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s “Gypsy” $30-$37 (musical)
9. TheatreWorks’ “The Glass Menagerie” $16-$35
10. Miners Alley Playhouse’s “The Threepenny Opera” $30.50-$34.50 (musical)
11. Rocky Mountain Rep’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes” $30 (musical)
11. Ben Dicke’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” $25-$30 (musical)
13. OpenStage’s “Wit” $16-$27
13. Ashton Entertainment’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” $22-$26
15. Vintage Theatre’s “The Cider House Rules” $18-$25
15. The Avenue’s “Murder Most Fowl” $22-$25
15. Theatre Or’s “The Value of Names” $25
18. Bas Bleu’s “The Love of the Nightingale” $5-$24
19. Abster Productions’ “August Osage County” $20-$23
20. Local Theater Company’s “Elijah: An Adventure” $18-$22
20. Thunder River’s “Ghost-Writer” $12-$22
22. Evergreen Chorale’s “The Sound of Music” $14-$21 (musical)
23. LIDA Project’s “Add it Up” $18-$20
23. Thingamajig’s “The Last Five Years” $20
23. Spark Theater’s “Rebecca” $20
23. The Edge’s “Boom” $20
23. Su Teatro’s “La Carpa Aztlan presents: I Don’t Speak English Only” $17-$20 (live music)
28. Backstage’s “The Belle of Amherst” $18
28. Curtain Playhouse’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” $15-$18
30. Thin Air Theatre Company’s “Greater Tuna” $9.50-$15.50
31. Star Bar Players’ “God of Carnage” $6-$15
31. Colorado Actors Theatre’s “Rumors” $10-$15
33. Shack Over There’s “Mafia Macbeth” $12
Average max price: $29.67
1. Midtown Arts Center’s “In the Heights” $49-$59 (musical)
1. Dinner Detective’s “Murder Mystery Dinner Show” (at Midtown) $59
3. Candlelight Dinner Playhouse’s “Fiddler on the Roof” $29.50-$57.50 (musical)
4. Boulder’s Dinner Theatre’s “Avenue Q” $40-$56 (musical)
5. Adams Mystery Playhouse’s “Welcome to Murder Mortuary” $42
6. Heritage Square Music Hall’s “American Idols” and “Under the Gaslight” $39.50 (musical)
7. Jester’s Dinner Theatre’s “My Fair Lady” $25-$35 (musical)
Average max price: $49.71
Here are selected reader comments:
Geoffrey Kent: Election years are tough. Nothing like constant economy talk to get people to tighten purse strings.
Jim Honiotes: One man’s opinion: Too many theater companies competing for patrons. Numerous groups have started up in the last year, just as others (some biggies) have closed. God bless the hearts of these theater folks who dream big. But there are too few hard-nosed business types really grinding the numbers and saying, “Man, this just isn’t gonna work.” We lead with our dreams and hearts and choose to ignore the stark realities.
Stacy Christine: I agree there may be too many theaters. I’ve got 23 bookmarked, which isn’t all of them, and if each averages four or five shows a year, that’s a lot to choose from. Many shows will be ignored just because the market is saturated. Script selection is also bizarre. Some might want to consider balancing artistic risk-taking with the economic environment. Practically, is this the right time to stage something that is going to be a hard sell to begin with? Shows can also be expensive. Though Curious generally delivers, I’m hesitant to pay more than $30 anywhere else. The average theatergoer might be less likely to pay a lot for a small show when they could see a big touring production for $50 or $60 (my ticket to “Stomp” last night was only $25). I see about 50 shows a year, and have no problem attending the risky shows. But, the theaters need to understand that those risks, while artistically satisfying, may well result in a house that sits two-thirds empty. This past year, I most enjoyed shows at Curious, Vintage, Spark, and Town Hall. Fences at the Denver Center was stunning.
Sarah McAfee: Parenthood. I also wonder if the combination of heat, economy, election politics, overwhelming choices and general busy-ness are just all combining to lead the general public (myself included) into such exhaustion that they want nothing more than to stay home and hide from the world.
Don DeVeux: Time and money, plus, sometimes, subject matter. If you look historically, certain shows do well during down-times because people want to escape. Other shows do well during prosperous times because people feel the need to examine other parts of their lives and the world around them.
Becky O’Rourke: So many shows, too little time! Add to that all the high-school productions (that hold kids hostage and gobble up many weekends). The best-laid plans… Also, not to offend, but when Big Head Todd pulls a standing-room crowd at Red Rocks vs. Idina Menzel’s 5,000 – that would seem to indicate a “different” kind of audience around town.
Amber Marsh: PHAMALY’s (Denver’s handicapped theater company) audiences have been dishearteningly small. I think people are getting ground down with too much to do. They are overscheduling themselves, and their kids too.
Chris Woolf: Impulse Theater crowds have actually been somewhat decent (around 60 last night) even when we’ve been rocking the same format for 25 years. Viva la improv!
Pat Payne (Spotlight Theatre): I can tell you Spotlight just closed “Murder on the Nile,” and we had one of our highest-grossing shows ever. Played to 90-plus houses for our final three performances.
Becca Farrell Fletcher: Personally, the economy. There are at least two or three shows every weekend I’d go see if I had the means. These days, I’m lucky if I get in a show every other month. It would be easy to just say “ticket prices,” but there are a LOT of really reasonably priced tickets out there. I can’t afford Denver Center or Arvada Center prices, but that leaves wide-open hundreds of shows that are reasonably priced. Sadly it comes down to “theater tickets … or feed my kids.” Kids win every time. Almost.
Dave Dahl: My answer is “all of the above.” Audiences remind me of the old joke where the king sends for his court playwright and says, “Give me something new … but not TOO new. Give me something funny … but not TOO frivolous. Give me something dramatic … but not TOO tragic.” I think audiences are getting tired of the old plays that sell, but are wary of new works too. So it’s this weird balancing act. Companies are sort of pinched to make their best guess.
Carol Steinberg Wolf: It does not matter what the reviews are for shows, the audiences don’t seem to be there.
Rebecca Salomonsson: For me it’s the simple fact that I can rarely afford tickets and a babysitter for my kids. I never see the big shows that come through because of the exorbitant prices, and even a night out at the smaller theaters costs $50-$60 dollars with tickets and babysitting. I see everything I can when I can get comps or major discounts.
Paige Price: The election! No one can get their message heard through all the bile out there. Especially in (swin-state) Colorado. The only ones doing well are the advertising sales folks.
Susan Lyles (And Toto Too theater company): As a parent, it’s an expensive night out. Tickets plus a sitter (charging a minimum of $10 per hour). As a friend and a producer, that’s why we offer cheap date-night ticket prices and haven’t raised our prices since 2005.
Marcia Polas: I agree with the election-year comments. But I’ll also suggest that I’m not sure the right methods are being used to reach new audiences and drive them to the theater. This might include cross-marketing, and finding ways to get existing fans/patrons to do word-of-mouth marketing and bring newcomers to the party. But I also believe there are potential young audiences who, if communicated with in the right manner (message and vehicle), will become regular patrons.
Carla Kaiser Kotrc: Ticket prices. I went to four shows two weekends ago. It cost me almost $200.
Paul A. Page: Ticket prices and Broncos season.
Ken Paul (“August: Osage County”): I wondered if everyone spent all of their money to see “The Book of Mormon.”
Clint Heyn: I wonder if there is a way to show audiences that, when looking at total date night, live theater can be the same cost as a movie, when one can pay much less for concessions at many small theaters.
Jack Wefso (“Picasso at the Lapin Agile”): Plus, taking a date to the (live) theater is WAY classier than the movies.
Tricia Moreland: I’m in “The Sound of Music” with the Evergreen Chorale right now. It’s directed by Bernie Cardell. We are half-way through the run, and two of the last six shows are sold-out. The other four are getting close. I know it’s a family show, so maybe that makes a difference, but a lot of people have been excited to come see us.
Jennifer M Koskinen: I’ve noticed and wondered about this, too … And there are so many fantastic shows right now! This season’s lineup at the Denver Center is fantastic with such diverse material between “The Three Musketeers,” “Fences” and “The Giver.”