Hello, Azuka friends and family —
Azuka celebrated its 20th Anniversary this year during BOYCOTT ESTHER’s closing weekend. The company’s been giving voice to stories that go unheard since its inception, but only a few years ago did Pay What You Decide give a whole new meaning to that mission of inclusiveness. In this Azuka Extra (your behind-the-scenes blog look at some things you may not know about Azuka), I’m exploring what Pay What You Decide really is.
Pay What You Decide is an innovative initiative for theater in Philadelphia and the country. But the idea isn’t new, with restaurants and other kinds of businesses trying it before. Within the theater industry, Azuka heard about first from an article about ARC Stockon, an arts center in England. But I wasn't around the office then. So maybe you should hear it from someone who was!
I asked Azuka’s Co-Founder and Marketing Director Mark Andrews to speak to the “origin story” of Pay What You Decide — unfortunately, there are no radioactive spiders or exploding planets — but it is the birth of something spectacular. Mark?
“In 2014, a former Board member brought Pay What You Decide to us after reading this article: READ HERE. Like so many theater companies, we start each season discussing ticketing strategies to try and increase attendance numbers and bring new people to our work. And like so many companies, we added new discounts for single tickets and subscriptions, we started a pay-it-forward program and we continued to use comps judiciously. The result was our houses were filled with very few patrons who had paid the full price for their tickets and small houses. Questions we had to ask: were we under-valuing the work we do? Were we making it too easy to get a discounted ticket? Was the work hard to access? Exactly who was attending our production and who wasn’t?
“It drops the financial barriers…it signals that the company trusts [patrons] and believes they should see theater no matter what’s in their wallet, and most of all it shows they are valued as part of the experience.”
We were very used to the concept of Pay What You Can performances – lots of theater companies do it: a single performance (typically a final dress or first preview) that benefits another cause and allows patrons to purchase tickets ahead of time at whatever price they wanted. The difference here – which felt both invigorating and daunting – was that the model was being utilized for EVERY performance and, scarier yet, AFTER the performances. Whaaat?! It seemed impossible that it could be successful. What appealed to us, however, was how it positioned patrons: it drops the financial barriers that forces them to weigh what they can afford – having to seek out a discount option (or to not attend at all), it signals that the company trusts them and believes they should see theater no matter what’s in their wallet, and most of all it shows they are valued as part of the experience.
After discussing it, we felt it was a no-brainer for us! We were settling into our focus on telling the stories of outcasts and underdogs and felt this spoke to that commitment. We knew we needed more information before diving in so started the process of finding a grant to assist with our research and implementation and made the call to ARC Stockton to learn more about their experiences.
In June 2016, Kevin & I travelled to England to research PWYD in action and to discuss the administrative needs for this model of Box Office. During our visit, we met with Annabel Turpin & Daniel Mitchelson of ARC Stockton and Porl Cooper of Slung Low's THE HUB.
Both ARC & Slung Low essentially ‘passed the hat’ afterward. While we appreciated the casualness of this, we felt it might not translate well to our audiences. Because others could see what each person paid, there was a concern for the ‘guilt factor.’ We definitely wanted to make certain our patrons could pay without judgement and decided that a payment envelope was our best option.
Both companies use the model in direct response to their communities and their needs – PWYD is a conversation between company and patron. Since Stockton and Leeds both served communities with financial concerns, this model was an ideal solution and their reported attendance and financial numbers proved it – exactly what we were trying to address at Azuka: a desire to reach new audiences, boost attendance, and provide access to communities that might not be able to due to their own financial barriers. In talking with some of their patrons – they responded by telling us how welcome they felt, how they are growing to feel more invested in the companies, some paying a little more because they could while others paid when they could without guilt and without feeling, well, like an outcast.”
Just a few months after Mark and Kevin’s visit, a press release announced the inauguration of Pay What You Decide at Azuka:
Philadelphia, PA — Azuka Theatre invites audiences to pay-what-you-decide for the entire 2016-2017 theater season with an innovative new approach to ticketing. A city that celebrates so many historic “firsts” is the perfect place to launch the only full-season model of this kind in the United States.
It’s true — at the time, Azuka was the only theater in the United States to use PWYD for every show of every production during the entire season!
How it Works
So now that Pay What You Decide is in place...how does it work?
If you’ve been to Azuka show in the past few years, you’ve likely heard a version of the Box Office spiel on PWYD:
“Here at Azuka, we ask that you pay after the show based on what you think your experience worth to you. You can pay with cash or a check using the envelope in your program, or you can pay with card at the box office.”
Ultimately — it really is that simple!
There’s sometimes an expectation, with a system like this, that there’s a caveat. A “but…” A hidden fee. A loophole, a sleight of hand.
There is no catch. Pay What You Decide means exactly what it says. It’s like “try it before you buy it.” All you need to do to see a show at Azuka is make a reservation, or walk up to the box office. Then you watch the lights go up, the story unfold, and the lights go down. Only after do you decide what, if anything, you’d like to pay. There is no suggested payment, no minimum payment, no judgement or guilt. If you want, you can even remain anonymous if paying with cash. Just slip your payment into an envelope and drop it in one of the collection baskets in the lobby.
Now, it goes without saying that the model wasn’t without its risks. The initial press release spoke to these potential roadblocks:
The most obvious risk faced with this program would be not making the budgeted ticket sales goal. Though Azuka is confident in the work we produce and the continued support of the audiences already established, there is the risk audiences would choose to see the work without making a post-show contribution, or making a contribution significantly lower than the average ticket price.
Would — and does — the boldness and admirable mission of this model make the financial danger worth it?
In a word: yes.
In just the first season of PWYD:
Attendance increased by 25%
Average ticket price rose from $10.65 to $13.55
Ticket income increased in 28%
One third of the audiences for each production were seeing their first Azuka show
These numbers showed two incredibly exciting promises: First, that Pay What You Decide could provide just as much (if not more) financial support as a traditional ticketing model — and that it could draw new audience members in — many of whom may very well have been previously suffering from prohibitive costs of theatergoing.
Today, going into the fourth full season of Pay What You Decide, those same promises are true. In fact, other local local theaters are already seeing the benefit and adopting Pay What You Decide, including our good friends and resident partners at the Drake, Simpatico Theatre!
To be fair, though, it only means so much coming from us — it’s our job to advertise it, after all, and while we do believe in it, as a philosophy — it’s the tangible impact it has on our audiences that gives it the way of something truly special. Like Mark spoke to — the idea that it can make someone feel welcome, like less of an outcast. It’s one of the reasons we have a section on our PWYD envelopes that allow patrons to write feedback. Feedback like this.
“The Pay What You Decide strategy promotes expression and art and collaboration unlike anything I've seen. Please keep on your path of enriching people's lives regardless of wealth.”
“Love the ‘Pay What You Decide’...Wish I could do more right now. This is so worth more.”
“I know it’s only a dollar, but it’s my only dollar.”
And that’s what Pay What You Decide is about. It’s about accessibility, it’s about trust — it’s about engagement with art, for everyone.
If you are in a place to do so, we encourage you to consider the Pay What You Decide model! And reach out to have a conversation about it. Our own Mark Andrews and Kevin Glaccum now have three seasons of experience with the system, with more to come.
To businesses: the risk might be worth it. And to our audiences: there’s no catch. We want you here. You belong here. Pay What You Decide: every production. Every performance. Everyone.