Last summer, before the bottom really fell out of the economy and everybody and their dog started brooding about risk, author Richard Cahan says he got to thinking about it in a creative context: how avoiding risk narrowed his own choices as a writer and the choices of artists and arts organizations in general. Their caution is understandable. For many small theater companies, Cahan notes, a single risky decision that doesn't pay off "can spell doom."
Arts patrons, too, are "worried about their time and worried about their money" and may hesitate to take a flyer on something they've never heard of before, he says.
Cahan was wondering why somebody wasn't stepping up to encourage risk taking on both sides of the equation when it occurred to him that he might know somebody who would.
Cahan's other gig, as a part-time program officer with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, gives him the ear of the folks who control the purse strings there. So, voila: the Driehaus Foundation Money Back Guarantee for theatergoers, which will make its debut with the joint Collaboraction/Teatro Vista production of Migdalia Cruz's El Grito del Bronx, running at the Goodman Theatre July 15 through August 2. "We can't do anything about [audience members'] time," Cahan says, "but we can do something about their money."
Of course, money-back guarantees have been around at least as long as the Sears catalog, though not in the theater. They're a surefire marketing tool, much less about returning cash to a few dissatisfied customers than about giving an exponentially larger number of them the gold-plated confidence to buy the product in the first place. In Cahan's vision, there'd be no obstacles between customer and payback—no cumbersome mail-in, no waiting for a check that might take months to arrive. Just a rep stationed in the lobby or at the box office after each performance, foundation cash in hand. Disgruntled customers would fill out the shortest of forms, explaining why they were dissatisfied, and get their money back on the spot. If they'd paid with a credit card, Cahan notes, they'd leave with more green in their pockets than they had when they arrived.
Cahan's boss at Driehaus, senior program officer Peter Handler, says he initially thought it would be better just to sponsor a series of free performances. Cahan convinced him that the guarantee would be a more original effort and had the potential of delivering bigger audiences. But when they floated it in the theater community, they encountered resistance. Cahan was surprised to find that "some people thought it was a bad idea. They were worried about the commodification of theater," thought there was already enough tension there, and didn't want to emphasize it.
Cahan had stumbled into quasi-taboo territory. Most media coverage of theater is written as if the author were blissfully ignorant of the fact that normal people have to fork over hard-earned cash to be in the audience. Critics, who usually get the best seats in the house without having to pay for them, aren't compelled to think about what it means to pony up for a ticket and then have to peer between heads from a seat under the balcony at a show that might turn out to have been overrated. When critic Kelly Kleiman brought the cost-value equation into a blog discussion on the WBEZ Web site a couple months ago, she reaped abuse from numerous commentators, including some of her peers in the critical ranks. But Kleiman, who wrote that her reviews are intended to provide her "listeners—people who might or might not spend $45 a ticket to see this production—with an answer to the question of whether they'll get their money's worth," had her finger on the real world's pulse: if you're selling tickets, you're dealing in a commodity, and if you're buying them, price and value count.
In the end, Handler says, he and Cahan got more positive than negative responses and presented the guarantee idea to their board this spring.
One member of the theater community who was enthusiastic from the beginning was Collaboraction artistic director Anthony Moseley, who immediately volunteered his production of Cruz's semiautobiographical play about growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s with a brother on his way to becoming a serial killer. The play, commissioned in 1995 by New York's Public Theater, had not yet had a fully staged Equity run because, Moseley says, of its "very dark" subject matter and relatively large cast. From an economic standpoint, "it's not an easy play to present."
This was not exactly what Cahan had in mind: El Grito del Bronx had already been scheduled for production, with the Goodman providing marketing help and free use of its Owen Theatre. "We originally thought the guarantee program would be two-pronged," Cahan says—encouraging theater companies to do plays they wouldn't otherwise do while also encouraging people to attend. But, he adds, for the pilot run, "I thought, if we're going to try this, we should try it with a group that really embraces it." And there was also the advantage of a fast start.
The Driehaus Foundation board has committed to spending up to $10,000 on refunds for El Grito del Bronx. Cahan says his "secret belief" is that "we're not going to spend much of the $10,000, but will have a huge impact" on ticket sales.
Moseley is directing the production, whose cast includes his wife, Sandra Delgado, as well as Teatro Vista artistic director Edward Torres. Moseley says the guarantee will be featured in all their marketing efforts—including an El Grito del Bronx float in the Chicago Puerto Rican Day parade on June 20. He's never personally encountered someone who wanted their money back after a show, he says, though Collaboraction offered refunds for several performances of To Kill a Mockingbird in 2002, when he had to step in for an actor who fell ill at the last minute.
"The part called for an 11-year-old boy," Moseley recalls. "I was a 250-pound, six-foot-two adult, reading from a script." Cast member Tony Fitzpatrick made a preshow announcement that anyone not happy with the show could get their money back when it was over. But "nobody took us up on it."
a The Driehaus Foundation will also sponsor about 30 free performances by arts groups on its funding roster in public areas of the city this summer.
a Call it TART: the MacArthur Foundation announced its own version of the government's TARP program late last month, but it won't help the smallest groups or newcomers. Arts organizations with budgets between $250,000 and $3 million that have already received MacArthur support, are having cash-flow problems, and aren't scared silly by the prospect of more debt can apply to a new Working Capital Loan Fund. ShoreBank will administer the program, which will offer short-term loans of $25,000 to $50,000 and longer-term lines of credit up to $100,000. Interest will be prime rate, capped at 5 percent. Executive Service Corps of Chicago will screen and advise applicants. Address queries to John Donaker, 312-580-1840 or firstname.lastname@example.org.