Is “Free” a Dirty Word in Theater?

There’s a saying that “you get what you pay for,” meaning more money equals a better product. But of course, that isn’t always the case. For example, you can get Moby Dick delivered to your Kindle for free via Amazon, but a copy of Dollhouse: A Novel by Kim Kardashian will set you back $9.78.

Does the adage hold up for live entertainment? Lyn Gardner at The Guardian contends that it doesn’t. She’s concerned that people are foregoing free theater because they’re under the (often wrong) assumption that it must be lower quality than shows that charge. A key quote from the piece:

“So if quality is not the issue, it must be a matter of perception, on both audiences and programmers, that makes people suspicious of free. I was interested in in the observation by the Greenwich and Docklands festival’s associate director Nathan Curry that theatres often value 100 people paying a tenner each for a ticket over an audience of 1,000 watching a show for free. Permanent theatres, with all their running costs, will value the income but perhaps they also need to really value the audience – particularly the one that is unlikely to pass through their doors but which they still need to serve and which will happily pitch up outside to see something for free. That requires artistic directors who look outwards from their buildings, not inwards”

Should more theaters embrace free shows? Read Gardner’s full piece for her perspective.


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