Free Theater Night Brings New Audiences

There may not be free lunch, but last week, all across the country, there was free theater. More than 600 non-profit theaters in 120 cities offered a Free Night of Theater, to hook new audiences.

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, Hank Williams like you never heard him.

But first, there may not be a free lunch but last week all across the country there was some free theater. More than 600 non-profit theaters in 120 cities offered Free Night of Theatre to try and hook new audiences. Jeff Lunden reports from New York.

JEFF LUNDEN: It was 7:55 p.m. in the lobby of the Queens Theatre in the Park when Andrew McGillicutty(ph), a husky guy in his 30s in sports jacket and tie, walked in with his date to pick up free tickets to see "Vine Tata," a new play about Romanian immigrants. McGillicutty said he found out about Free Night of Theatre from an article in the newspaper, then reserved his tickets on the Internet. Why this play in this theater?

Mr. ANDREW MCGILLICUTTY: It's a little bit sort of geographically convenient. I work in Queens. I'd been to this theater before about several years ago, and I knew that they've redone it so I figured I'd come on out. But I didn't really think - I didn't know much about the show itself. But I figure it's a night of theater. I figured it would be fun.

LUNDEN: McGillicutty is just the sort of person Free Night of Theatre is geared towards, says Teresa Eyring, executive director of TCG, the Theatre Communications Group, a service organization of non-profit theaters across America. In 2003, many of those theaters were still reeling from the effects of 9/11, finding both audiences and donations shrinking. Eyring says TCG wanted to find a way to increase both.

Ms. TERESA EYRING (Executive Director, Theatre Communications Group): The idea was that theaters would make as many seats available, as many tickets available at no charge in order to invite audiences to attend, but primarily people who didn't typically attend the theater. The idea was to introduce theater to people who just probably because of the price barrier hadn't given it a try yet.

LUNDEN: A pilot program began in 2005 with just three cities participating: Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas. But it proved so successful that theaters in other cities were clamoring to join. One of them was the Cleveland Public Theatre, the company that offers edgy political work and radical re-interpretations of classic plays. They've offered free tickets for three seasons now. Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan says in this entertainment market theaters like his have to give a little push.

Mr. RAYMOND BOBGAN (Executive Artistic Director, Cleveland Public Theatre): We're really competing not against other theaters but against movies. And so by having a Free Night of Theatre, it's a low-risk for them.

LUNDEN: Every participating theater makes at least a quarter of its seats available for Free Night of Theatre. Some have found underwriting to cover expenses, but most take the monetary loss in hopes that it will ultimately lead to a gain in ticket sales, says TCG's Teresa Eyring.

Ms. EYRING: Most theaters don't perform at 100 percent capacity for every single show, and so if those tickets aren't used at all it's a missed opportunity, whereas if they can identify the 100 tickets that perhaps won't sell and make sure that those tickets are used by someone who might not otherwise attend, it becomes, in a sense, marketing expense. It's an audience development expense.

LUNDEN: Jeffrey Rosenstock is artistic director of the Queens Theatre in the Park, a non-profit theater that presents new plays, dance and opera performances in the middle of New York's Flushing Meadows Corona Park, not far from Shea Stadium and the Unisphere, the large globe made famous in "Men In Black." He says his theater will actively court the free-nighters.

Mr. JEFFREY ROSENSTOCK (Artistic Director, Queens Theatre in the Park): Send them out even with their tickets, something sayingwelcome, do you need special directions, you know? We're delighted this is your first time. And then immediately after the show is a small little survey and a follow-up saying, we hope you enjoyed it. If there is anything that didn't work, can you let us know, and here's a brochure and a special offer for something else, to see if we can get them to become an ongoing customer.

LUNDEN: If the experience of other theaters is any guide, Rosenstock should find an up-tick(ph) in his paying audience. In past years, over three-quarters of the people who participate have never been to the host theater before, and almost half of them come back and pay full price. And Teresa Eyring says a substantial number are young, ethnically diverse and don't have a lot of disposable income.

Ms. EYRING: So what we've been able to determine, again, is that we're really reaching an audience that does not meet the typical profile of theater-goer.

LUNDEN: And what of Andrew McGillicutty, the man who attended the Queens Theatre in the Park because it was close to where he worked?

Mr. MCGILLICUTTY: I enjoyed it. It was good. It was good. Professional performance, you know? The story was interesting.

LUNDEN: But more important, would he come back and pay full price?

Mr. MCGILLICUTTY: Yeah. You know, I think I would.

LUNDEN: Some theaters will be offering free tickets through the end of October. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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