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How to win at box-office bingo

With dynamic pricing, you can score cheap seats—or get priced out.

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On a recent morning, thinking I might be able to catch a performance of Porgy and Bess at Lyric Opera, I checked Lyric's website. The cheapest seat in the house—a perch in the vertiginous reaches of the upper balcony—would set me back $59.

When I got to the ticket window, an hour before curtain, I bought the same seat for $30. I took in a preopera lecture and then was whisked to the sixth floor, where there's a close-up view of the magnificent golden ceiling and (just ask the elevator operator) the best sound in the house.

Among the things to be grateful for this holiday season: rush tickets have come to Lyric.

Beginning two hours before performance time, provided tickets are available, they can be purchased at 50 percent off. The seats might be anywhere in the house; the half-price tab the night I went ranged from $30 to $120. The upper end could get you into donor territory on the main floor.

And you don't have to pretend to be a kid or a college student to claim them. (Lyric has had discount programs for them for awhile.) You can just walk up or go to the website, and take your chance at getting lucky. It's like playing a very little Lotto, with way better odds.

But these tempting rush tickets are the low-tech, last-ditch arm of a more complicated strategy that's come to opera companies and symphony orchestras over the last decade or so, and more recently to nonprofit theaters. Dynamic pricing, aka demand-based pricing, is the same phenomenon that turned the experience of booking an airline ticket or a hotel room into a sort of Russian roulette. What you pay depends on when you pull the trigger. The opera ticket that was $59 in November, for example, might have been purchased the previous March for $34.

This is Econ 101 in action: when supply is limited and demand is high, prices can escalate. Arts administrators know this, and it's why, when seasons are set, weekend seats are priced higher than weeknights, and a production that can be counted on to sell—say, a familiar show with a track record—will be a more expensive ticket than a fledgling work by a new playwright.

Until recently, however, those pricing decisions were made months ahead of time, and were "more guesswork or art than science," according to Goodman Theatre's executive director of more than three decades, Roche Schulfer. And they were pretty much set in stone. If a theater lucked into a new hit play, the only people who might benefit from the increased demand would be scalpers—and that would be rare for most local theater.

But in 2010, Schulfer says, the Goodman got access to Tessitura, a technology originally developed for the Metropolitan Opera, which enables the theater to charge on a per-performance basis. "We still have estimated prices for each production, but as we get closer to the sale period and have some sense of what the demand is, we'll develop a range of prices for each performance, and then we can adjust on a daily basis," Schulfer says.

That means, unless you're buying season tickets, prices, especially on the upper end, are in flux. Advertising will generally indicate only something like a "tickets starting at" figure.

But Schulfer says the adjustments go both ways: "You can't confuse this with the Broadway model," he says. "The best seats in our theater go to subscribers." And with 55 percent of the house subscribed, only 45 percent of Goodman tickets are subject to dynamic pricing.

"It's game changing," Schulfer says. "There's a lot of publicity given to what happens on Broadway, the fact that they can charge hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a ticket, but for theaters like ours, the ability to adjust prices both upward and downward means that you can stimulate demand when you're doing a new play or a play that maybe didn't get good reviews but people still have an interest in." Schulfer says on average, Goodman prices rise or fall about 15 percent.

And if there are complaints about being priced out of a popular show? "I'd say 'Well, you could have subscribed,'" Schulfer says. "Our lowest subscription price this year was $90, or $18 each, for five plays in the Albert," the theater's main stage. (Goodman also offers mezzanine rush tickets at 50 percent off, along with $10 student tickets.)

"It's the way most businesses operate, but we weren't able to do it in the performing arts, because the technology wasn't available," says Schulfer.

The last time I looked at the Goodman website, a main-floor ticket to see Larry Yando's dynamic turn as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol would cost you $101 for a Sunday matinee on December 14 and $83 for an evening performance that Wednesday. And Lyric was offering a $99 special on all remaining main-floor tickets for Porgy and Bess.

But that was last week.

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