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The Play’s The Thing: Companies use ticket deals to entice interest in theater

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There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer. — Gertrude Stein

My last column examined the question: What does it take to get an audience? Rather than accept Gertrude Stein’s bleak response — she probably was talking about the meaning of life or if America will ever get universal health care — let’s see what marketing tactics, other than e-mail and finding a hook, might bring ticket buyers into our theaters.

Broadway and off-Broadway venues on the other side of the East River spend a lot of money on advertising, but their main gambit to fill the seats is offering a substantial discount. A full-price ticket to a Broadway show usually exceeds $100 — not a problem for all the tourists who are willing to splurge. We natives, however, need some encouragement. So from the TKTS locations in Manhattan to online sites to frequent mailings, you can save substantial bucks at a discount, especially if you do not crave the best seats.

A few years ago, the off-Broadway Signature Theater Co. started to sell most of its tickets for $15, thanks to an underwriting grant from Time Warner, which covered the costs. It was an instant success and 30 percent of audience members were 35 or under. They are still at it, but tickets are now $20. According to its founding artistic director, James Houghton, “You take that financial barrier away, there is a lot of interest in theater.”

Here in Queens, the ticket price is already at a bargain level — how much lower can it go? But everybody wants to get a good deal, so even a couple of dollars off the price can be a factor. That is why manufacturers send out coupons for the supermarket and retailers always have merchandise on sale — all aimed at getting customers in the stores. My first wife can often be found at Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue — it is amazing how much money she has saved us.

Season subscribers are a prime goal of our leading nonprofits — Lincoln Center Theater has an over 90 percent renewal rate. It is very comforting to know most of your tickets are sold before your first show opens. But even then, these companies must rely heavily on corporate and individual donations. The Outrageous Fortune Co. offers potential subscribers a discount, but so far it has not been able to pass 15 percent.

Group sales are another goal — people like to go out with their friends and colleagues. It is a lot easier than selling two tickets at a time if you can find the groups and are willing to spend the time to keep after them.

Getting an audience often comes down to overcoming a lack of interest by coming up with something to motivate the elusive ticket buyer. The commercial theater puts a celebrity on stage for that purpose, but our local stars do not have the same drawing power. Perhaps we need to think more about our choice of plays.

Here is a tale of different choices by three local groups. Theatre a la Carte in Douglaston is casting for “Murder on the Nile” — as in Agatha Christie, who has been dead more than 30 years, but is still going strong. Across the Long Island Rail Road tracks, Douglaston Community Theatre will be doing “Funny Money” by English playwright Ray Cooney, who is known for his farcical comedies, most notably “Run for Your Wife.” And in Forest Hills, the Parkside Players are now in rehearsal for “Trust,” an original work about John D. Rockefeller, Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil Co. Let’s see how they all do.

More next time.

Contact Ron Hellman at rbh24@columbia.edu.

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