Selling Out With Jack Reuler
Is “free cheaper than cheap”? For Mixed Blood Theatre in the Twin Cities, it seems to be. Its admission initiative called “Radical Hospitality” allows anyone to attend a show for free. Three seasons of the campaign is paying off with increased popularity and donations.
After hearing about the program on HowlRound.com, we spoke with Mixed Blood Theatre artistic director Jack Reuler. He shared further insights into what aspects of the program are working, what they’re continuing to tweak and what their business model means for the rest of the theater scene in the Twin Cities.
Jessica Koslow: What is “Radical Hospitality,” and how did you come up with the concept?
Jack Reuler: A primary objective upon which Mixed Blood was founded in 1976 was to “attract a nontraditional audience” to the theater. In 38 years, that has been interpreted in countless ways by innumerable staff and board members, but the tenet has remained constant. Radical Hospitality allows us to connect mission, vision, core values and strategic priorities — to develop methods to revolutionize access while bringing the global village into the theater (on stage, off stage and in the audience). We asked a lot of questions of a lot of people for a long time and listened hard to what constituted the barriers to participation in live theater in general and at Mixed Blood more specifically. We made a list of these barriers and committed to tackle them all. The most often heard was that cost was perceived to be the biggest obstacle. Radical Hospitality is diluting or reducing all of those barriers, but we tackled the most difficult one first — aiming to demonetize the theater experience to create a welcoming, inviting, affirming destination boasting theater of the highest professional standards. The simple explanation is that anyone can see any performance on Mixed Blood’s main stage without cost. It’s based on the assertion that value is on a continuum of cost and quality. If one maintains or improves quality and removes cost, value is optimized (not diminished).
JK: You have been quoted as saying, “Free is cheaper than cheap!” Can you explain what you mean by this?
JR: As we explored models to open the doors for all to come, we looked at many variations. The cost of marketing and staffing a box office was very similar for a $5 ticket as for a $25 ticket and more. The cost benefit analysis of no-cost admission was much greater than for an inexpensive ticket. It’s simply a financial assessment.
JK: Radical Hospitality includes a free cab-ride program for audience members who self-identify as having disabilities, and social programs like these have allowed you to expand your funding and donor bases. Could you explain how?
JR: Philosophically, Mixed Blood’s board and staff decide what activities are best and most strategic in pursuit of mission realization and then find the resources to support those activities (rather than act opportunistically). The transportation fund is an example of Radical Hospitality being more than free admission. As we did focus groups with leaders of disability communities and of our own Disability Advisory Council, we learned that transportation, bathrooms and front-of-house treatment were as important as cost in our ambition to be a theatrical destination for people with disabilities. We then sought funds to subsidize those efforts, and we still have a long way to go.
As we were pondering the establishment of Radical Hospitality, our board president predicted that funding “users” of theater would be another avenue of support to pursue, just as being “makers” of theater has been. That is slowly coming into focus. We have been thrilled to see that individual donations from people attending main stage shows has grown substantially during the past three years. The number of gifts has grown and the average size of the gift has shrunk.
JK: Here’s another great quote from you: “At Mixed Blood adaptability has replaced sustainability as an administrative value.” Could you expand on this?
JR: Nonprofits need to be nimble and ever-prepared to adjust to change. Old institutional models of nonprofits become more antiquated by the day. We are blessed to have a board that recognizes that principles and purpose supersede survival. If tomorrow is the last day of our organization’s existence and we have lived life on our own terms, then so be it. But I believe that very mindset assures us that the end is not upon us nor will be for a long time. A futurist or visionary is not a genius with a crystal ball, but a group of people who recognize trends and behave accordingly — trying to be prepared, flexible to quickly be prepared and not get caught being left behind or playing catch up. My diagnosable need for constant change is, on a day-to-day basis, hard on staff but healthy for the organization over the long haul. Good strategic planning and thinking can allow this to happen without being destructive. I have great partners on staff and a bold board.
JK: Radical Hospitality aims to make the arts more accessible and bring in people that are not necessarily theatergoers. I read that “nine percent of Radical Hospitality users last season had never seen a piece of live theater before in their lives.” But I also read that your focus on access may be at the cost of continuing to reach out to the core constituency of theatergoers who are the backbone of Twin Cities’ audiences. How do you balance these two groups?
JR: Having people in the audience who have never been to a live performance makes Radical Hospitality seem good for the region, not simply for Mixed Blood. If someone comes without cost to see a Mixed Blood show and then becomes a paying season ticket holder to another theater, we all win. Conversely, it’s a reflection of a shortfall of imagination on our part that traditional theatergoers have come in smaller numbers in the past two seasons. That was us taking people for granted. Shame on us. We want everyone joining us. Systems and practices are being put in place to recapture those that are the backbone of the healthy Twin Cities cultural ecosystem of which we are the beneficiary.