The Crowd Theater opened in a Lakeview storefront in November 2015, jokingly branding itself as "Chicago's only improv comedy theater." Of course, that's not true, but the owners have tried to be creative in order to get recognized in an oversaturated community. In October 2016, just before the theater's one-year anniversary, Crowd adopted a new financial model: monthly subscriptions. Through the crowd-funding platform Patreon guests can pay one monthly fee for access to every performance on that month's schedule, giving those who frequent the theater a good deal while providing the Crowd with a guaranteed monthly income to fulfill its mission of "diversity, inclusivity, and affordability."
"I think a lot of smaller comedy theaters have been struggling to find some sort of alternate route to income that you can support your theater with but doesn't necessarily put a lot of pressure on the people coming to see your shows," says Crowd Theater cofounder Blair Britt. "This is a more affordable way for people who we know want to be at our theater several nights a week to do that, but also allows us a regular monthly income that gives us a little more financial stability."
This is a format that has yet to be used at a comedy theater in Chicago—but it's off to a good start for Crowd. So far the subscriptions are providing the company $911 a month, according to the Patreon site, putting Crowd on the road to cutting rental rates for performers in half. Patrons can donate anywhere from $5 to $50 per month, with different perks available at each stage, ranging from one monthly pass to all Crowd's performances ($5), to a plus-one pass ($10), free merchandise ($25), and a spot on the "Angel Board," a plaque honoring the highest-level donors ($50).
And they're lightening the financial load on performers as well. Crowd's in-house membership program for comedians, the Co-op, charges improvisers only $30 per three-month season (the fee is waived for people of color to encourage diversity) and in return puts them on an improv team, provides a coach from the theater, offers rehearsal space, and guarantees each new group at least five performances either at the Crowd or the neighboring CIC Theater. While it's not technically a school, the Co-op does offer a unique and affordable learning opportunity. More formal classes at larger theaters like the Second City or iO typically cost ten times that much per term.
"What we wanted to do was emphasize people performing," Britt says, "and offer people a comparatively cheaper version of classes that allows people to test out stuff in front of actual audience members."
Britt stresses that the entire model is still in its experimental phase and that there are problems they'll be dealing with along the way. For example, since the election Crowd's seen an increase in people looking for a venue for shows that assist specific organizations or groups—the first in a series of monthly fund-raising showcases was an all-female performance benefiting Planned Parenthood that took place early last week. Britt hopes those with passes will still donate to worthy causes, and thinks it's important that he and his team implement a system that ensures Crowd's subscriptions aren't taking away from the fund-raising total.
Britt is also regularly checking in with performers and producers to compare how much money their shows used to make against how much they're taking in with the new financial format. But at the end of the day, this model is in place to both enhance the quality of performances and increase the number of people who actually see them.
"As important as it is to make money off these shows and sell tickets," Britt says, "if there's a way to get more people in the door to see that show, the show's just going to be more enjoyable for the performers and the rest of the audience." v