Theater has an image–sometimes legitimate, sometimes not–of being set apart from the general population. Silly stereotypes and false generalizations from both the political right and left convey theater as elitist, decadent, or just plain too hard to understand.
However, in the Twin Cities, the second major metro area for theater and dance after the Big Apple, such myths are shattered six or sometimes seven nights a week on local stages. Of course, in our economically dismal time, ticket prices are a barrier to many despite the fact that many theaters, as well as Goldstar.com, have discount options.
Two south Minneapolis theaters, Mixed Blood and Pillsbury House, now offer an unprecedented amount of free or “pay what you want” seating for the same high-quality productions they are famous for. It suits each theater’s view toward inclusion and connection to the financially strapped neighborhoods near their facilities, though folks everywhere are welcome to take advantage of this opportunity. (Both houses are currently staging shows with GLBT issues and crossgender performances: The Pride at Pillsbury House and Neighbors at Mixed Blood.)
PHT Communications Director Alan Berks says that two major grants from the State Arts Board and funding by the Legacy Amendment allowed the theater to lower their ticket price for their recent staging of Broke-ology, which featured the stellar James Craven and Sonja Parks, “to whatever an audience member could pay. Pick your price. Anytime. And we saw our attendance increase by 500 people from the previous show.” Some people paid nothing. A few even paid $50 dollars. One, even $150. It was totally their individual choice.”
At Mixed Blood they have Radical Hospitality: no-cost access to all mainstage productions for all audience members. The aim is to build relationships with those who have been underserved by the arts and to eliminate real and perceived barriers to participation. Their model, launched by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, resembles New York’s Signature Theatre which found this approach vastly expanded patronage, subscriptions, and donations.
Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler says, “by revolutionizing access, we are challenging the traditional notions of cost, quality, and value. Offering shows of the highest professional standards for no cost optimizes value.”
This also runs radically counter to a culture glued to TV screens, video games, spectator sports, and commercial film fare dominated by action and special effects. PHT Artistic Director Faye Price calls theater “a ritual of immediacy. It’s a live art form, living and breathing. You can never go to the theater and see a copy of last night’s performance. Something will be different. Real people in real time telling real stories. And as an audience member you communally bear witness to the story, absorbing individually, experiencing collectively. And in the best of all worlds those stories may provoke you, entertain you, introduce you to someone or something you’ve never, ever considered before. It can be magical. And community-building in the best sense of the term.”