If you attended Azuka’s fall show The Gap, after you were handed your program, you probably heard me (your friendly neighborhood intern Lucas), or one of the many other box office workers alternating shifts behind the black table in the lobby of the Louis Bluver theater, ask “Are you familiar with Azuka’s Pay What You Decide program?” Several people are; they might be veteran audience members, or maybe they heard about it online or from a friend. Others don’t know it exactly, but can guess the basic concept just based on the name. And still others say, “Tell me about it. Stud.” Except, usually without the “stud.” I mean, sometimes. Different nights, different crowds, you know?
At Azuka, we ask that you pay after the show based on what you think your experience was worth to you. You can pay with cash or check in the envelope in your program, or come to the box office if you’d like to pay with card. Man, that little spiel is ingrained in my mind like my own name, or the teleplays of most Breaking Bad episodes. But I love saying it every time, because it means spreading and educating about this idea of Pay What You Decide, a ticketing system that completely eliminates the financial barrier that keeps many people from seeing theater. Azuka’s motto is “Telling the stories of outcasts and underdogs”; so shouldn’t every outcast and underdog be able to see those stories?
Getting the word out about PWYD isn’t only helpful for patrons; it’s also important in encouraging other theaters to give it a try. This past September, Philadelphia FringeArts’ production of James Miller’s Monarch implemented Pay What You Decide, citing their “mission of arts accessibility.” Theatre Horizon in Norristown tested it out in their July 2016 staging of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And the ARC Stockton Arts Center, as well as The Hub at Slung Low Theatre in England (the primary inspirations for Azuka’s PWYD) were spearheading the concept back in 2015. In fact, ARC Stockton has an online PWYD “Toolkit” that explains the logistics of the program, including some attractive and unexpected financial benefits, far better than I, someone who hasn’t done math since high school, ever could. So check it out at this link! It's a really great overview.
Theater is obviously not the only business that can implement Pay What You Decide, ‘cause it’s not the only business where people exchange money for goods and services. That’s...kind of what a business is. Repping West Philly by my own Drexel campus is the EAT Cafe, a “pay what you can” restaurant. The EAT stands for “Everyone At the Table”, a phrase that warmly embodies the core philosophy of inclusivity behind the pricing model. Plus I’m looking at their menu online and they have something called “African peanut soup”? Which I’m really curious about. Apparently they’ve got this rotating food roster, like a New Orleans menu starting January 31st. That’s such a cool idea. Does anyone wanna go there with me? Sorry, this is turning into a plug for EAT Cafe. They’re PWYD! As is De Culinaire Werkplaats over in Amsterdam, and the SAME Cafe in Denver, and Swedish kitchen Fika in London. And a handful of other eateries, including several more here in Philly, that believe in the model.
As a naively optimistic young college hippie with an unblemished heart, my personal favorite part of PWYD is the incredibly positive philosophy behind it -- the community, the passion, the faith. One of my Azuka bosses Kevin Glaccum handles fundraising and grant writing, and he always says that a genuine belief in and love of the work he produces is an integral part of the job. Whether you’re staging a raw and powerful love story, or serving one-of-a-kind cuisine based on a family recipe generations old, if you are committed to making what you offer as valuable to a patron as possible, a program like Pay What You Decide is a risk worth taking. And it’s a risk that totally makes sense! Have you ever seen a play or a movie, or tasted a flavor, that changed you? Like the scene in Ratatouille where the food critic takes a single bite and is suddenly back in the countryside childhood that he’d completely forgotten about. Maybe the person who needs to experience your work the most couldn’t before, and now they can. That’s seriously powerful. As is, like, the entirety of Ratatouille. That thing is a masterpiece; talk about outcasts and underdogs, I mean, a rat who wants to be a chef? Holy crap. Wait is Azuka gonna adapt Ratatouille? Is that what’s happening right now?
Pay What You Decide shows patrons that they are your number one priority, and that you’re absolutely confident in what you’re offering them. It really is a statement. It’s a statement about community and inclusion and equality. For theaters, it’s a statement about art. For restaurants, it’s a statement about basic human necessities. It’s totally sappy. But these days I think we can really use a little sappy.
There are a few different ways that Pay What You Decide can be done. If you’ve got a theater, or a restaurant, or a cat cafe, or a rat cafe, or a cafe where the chefs are all rats, or any business that you believe in, find the way that works best for you. Check out that toolkit. Email me or anybody else at Azuka! Get in touch with others who’ve tried this model and had success with it. Then test it out yourself. I honestly believe this is the pricing system of the future; and yeah, you can geek out about it. Geek out about a pricing system. I wrote a whole blog post geeking out about it. No shame.
So if you catch me at the box office for our upcoming show Ready Steady Yeti Go, hopefully you’ll be a little more familiar with our model. But still feel free to ask me, because I’m always happy to tell you about it.