We unlocked a gold mine during COVID by increasing accessibility to theater. Will others follow?
FF2 Guest Post by Danielle DeMatteo
Theater used to be a truly community event. The origins of theater reach as far back as society itself: community members gathering in a common space to watch religious ceremonies and morality plays.
These community events became professionalized over time, and eventually turned into what we know today as Broadway. A diehard theatrical audience emerged. Standards of the art form were raised, and at the same time, productions became more expensive. In order to meet these costs, Producers took the easy solution: just raise ticket prices. Live plays, once free or pay-what-you-can community events, have now become luxury commodities.
In one piece of Broadway lore, the real-life producers of the hit Broadway musical The Producers were sick of scalpers reselling $99 tickets to tourists for $150 (and sometimes much more). Tourists were none the wiser, so these scalpers were making more off the blockbuster than the show’s actual producers. That wouldn’t fly. In a bold move to fight the scalpers, these producers of The Producers jacked their orchestra ticket prices up to over $400 a piece – the logic being that scalpers would never be able to double that price.
It worked. The scalpers brought down their reselling prices, but Broadway tickets have been locked in at high price points ever since. Hamilton’s demand built on The Producers’ foundation, and suddenly it’s not strange to sell an orchestra seat for $700. When COVID hit, Broadway tickets were more expensive than they had ever been in history.
As prices have ticked up, more and more people have been cut out of the audience pool. This doesn’t just include people who can’t afford tickets (not to mention travel to New York, or to pay for a babysitter on top of the ticket price). People with disabilities are especially disadvantaged. Most Broadway theaters don’t even have elevators, and deaf- or blind-friendly performances are few and far between. In short, over the last 100 years (the exact span of time that Broadway has existed), theater has become radically less inclusive.
But COVID forced us to see there’s a better way.
When the f2f world came to a screeching halt in March 2020, some industries shifted to all-digital activities. Broadway producers were wary, knowing you couldn’t charge nearly as much for digital tickets as you could for in-person seats, so most just closed up shop and waited for things to re-open.
But others took the risk to try to adapt. At SheNYC Arts, we had just announced our Summer 2020 season when the pandemic hit. While every other theater production shut down, we saw a unique opportunity: we would immediately pivot and become one of the first theater companies to do an entirely digital season.
The idea was great, but we had a major challenge: we had absolutely no clue how to do it.
That’s when the endless research and Zoom calls began. Our team of staff and artists – who are used to working with physical props, lights, and costumes in our hands – became IT pros overnight. We found a streaming platform that was popular for podcasters, and figured out how to tweak it to stage plays. We experimented with how to sync singers performing a musical number across 15 different Zoom screens.
Me? I taught myself how to edit musical instruments all recorded in different houses and blend them with digital orchestration. We shipped out ethernet cables to our entire team so that livestreams wouldn’t be sabotaged by shoddy Brooklyn wifi (take that, Spectrum).
What’s more, we learned that once we had recorded digital performances, accessibility became so much easier (and more affordable!). We were able to caption everything in advance. We could edit in an ASL interpreter to the corner of the screen, and add audio descriptions for blind viewers. And, because all of this cost so much less, we were able to offer our most affordable ticket prices ever.
But we then faced the question, would anyone actually pay to tune into digital theater?
Our summer season began in June 2020, just when everyone had watched everything on Netflix and was hungry for something new. Those starved for Broadway had only one option to see anything resembling “real” theater, and it was us. Some might call that timing “luck,” but I know there was nothing lucky about it – we were a team of creative women who worked overtime to be the first people to offer a solution to this new – and wholly unexpected – problem.
We had no idea how to price digital tickets, but we took a guess by asking $5 per ticket (along with the option to add an additional donation). Those super-accessible $5 tickets got us to break even. On top of that, nearly 75% of audience members chose to add a donation! We cast the net wide and made it less expensive, rather than keeping our audience pool exclusive and having to charge each person more money – the very problem that Broadway at large has gotten itself into.
We took a risk, and it paid off. We had a worldwide audience that included Broadway die-hards. It included people with disabilities who usually can’t get into a theater, or who need captions to enjoy the show. It included parents who watched on TV while their kids played on the floor next to them. It included people who work nights and weekends, so have never been able to make traditional curtain times.
It was so successful that even though we were back in the theater by summer 2021, we have decided to keep digital performances indefinitely, filming all of our live performances and offering them as an online option for those who can’t make it to the theater.
While it certainly wasn’t easy, the pandemic forced us to get creative and build resilience and stronger accessibility into our business model. For that, I’m forever grateful.
© Danielle DeMatteo (10/12/22) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Learn more here about SheNYC Arts.
Listen to Queen Anne, a musical soundtrack made entirely in quarantine isolation.
Learn more about how The Producers’ anti-scalping strategy raised Broadway ticket prices.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo Credit: Shoshana Medney. Final bows at GRAY (a new play at the 2022 SheNYC Theater Festival by Kristy Thomas). Used with permission of SheNYC Arts. All Rights Reserved.
Danielle DeMatteo guides, plans, and makes creative content for the entertainment industry. She believes that the arts and politics have to work together in order to enact social change. Politics changes laws; art changes minds.
Read all about Danielle in this fabulous Forbes interview!
For more information on current projects, visit Danielle’s website 😉