Intiman Theatre is embarking on a radical experiment — so radical, it’s got “radical” in the name.
The phrase “radical hospitality” has been pinging around the theater world since 2011, when Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis started giving away all its tickets, to every show, for free. Now Intiman, the 47-year-old Seattle theater that has gone through dramatic changes over the decades (Tony Award in 2006, very near-death experience in 2011, reinvention in 2012, retiring all its debt in January), is giving radical hospitality a try.
The initiative, artistic director Jen Zeyl explained, is about more than the standard theater problem of getting “butts in seats.” (Though, of course, there’s that.) It’s about getting the butts one wants in seats — not just the people who can afford to take the $25+ crap shoot known as a theater ticket, but the people who can’t: the woman at the corner store, high-school sophomore, the guy asking for spare change on the sidewalk.
All the tickets to its next play (“The Events,” David Greig’s study of a mass shooting and its aftermath, written for two actors and a series of community choirs) are free — and if you want one, you’d better get on it. Eight days before the first preview on July 18, Intiman reported that 70% of the tickets for the entire run (minus the handful they’re holding for walk-ups at each performance) have been reserved.
Compare “The Events” with “Caught,” Intiman’s March play: Intiman says that at the same benchmark, five days before previews, a mere 8% of its tickets had been sold. By the end of the run, it had only filled 41.75% of the total house capacity. By the end of its prior play, “Native Gardens,” sales reached 67.47% of capacity.
Why dive into radical hospitality?
“This just comes from me understanding access to art as a human right,” Zeyl said. “I feel the same way about health care, insurance, anything fulfilling basic human needs that has been privatized to make a dollar. Think about theater inside the Russian doll of art, inside the Russian doll of nonprofits, surrounded by capitalism and wrapped in white supremacy. I mean, can we make it any less accessible?”
Call what Zeyl is looking for — along with every other artistic director in the country — the Mari Salinas Effect.
Salinas is a longtime Kent resident. Her family moved there in the 1970s, decades before the city became a diverse, majority-minority community. “The transition is very exciting,” she said. “Diversity is healthy, it is beautiful and it is interesting.”
She works as a receptionist in an OB-GYN office, is a longtime homeless and racial-justice advocate and is very fond of theater — especially her hometown Theatre Battery, founded in 2011 with the unconventional mission of making contemporary, experimental theater for Kent in unused storefronts. (Logan Ellis, its artistic director, is now entering his third year in the graduate directing program at Yale.)
For its 2016 production of “Hooded or Being Black for Dummies,” Theatre Battery tried out radical hospitality — free tickets, coupled with intensive community outreach to attract, as Ellis put it, “the first-time theatergoer living in Kent.” It worked.
“The performances were explosively over-packed,” Ellis said. Until then, they had been “converting storefronts into houses with 50 seats or less, with a $15-$25 ticket range, and we usually wouldn’t fill the house.” The day a Seattle Times article announcing their radical-hospitality initiative dropped, Ellis said, over 200 people lined up to see the show, leading Theatre Battery to a new anguish they’d never expected — having to turn hordes of people away. (They’ve since refined their system, learning, among other things, what percentage of the audience tends to not show up for a given show.)
“Hooded” was Salinas’ first Theatre Battery experience. She became a convert.
Now Salinas spreads the word about new performances in the same places she does social-justice outreach — handing out flyers at the Mother Africa community center, at parks where homeless people tend to congregate, at Asian and Latino markets. During Theatre Battery’s most recent production, “Alma (or #nowall),” Salinas went to three Kent refugee-services centers to tell people about it.
“I just say, ‘please enjoy this play,’ ” Salinas said. “It’s like breaking bread with somebody — but nobody will ever sit down and break bread if we don’t offer anything first. In Seattle, it’s very rare for me to meet somebody at a play who says ‘this is my first play ever,’ but at Theatre Battery it’s very common.”
A longtime community member, handing out flyers to potential audience members not normally dreamed of in arts-marketing plans? That’s outreach that no amount of money (or press comps) can buy.
How to afford it?
Both Ellis and Zeyl hit a predictable thicket of skepticism when they pitched radical hospitality to their theaters: How could they afford it? How would it work? And then there’s the tricky argument that people won’t value something if they don’t pay for it.
“A lot of people involved in Theatre Battery at the time thought radical hospitality was a really stupid idea for that reason,” Ellis said. “But I said: ‘I have a sense that that’s wrong. Church is free, but people go. Libraries are free, but people still check out books. Let’s try it.’ Now we’re never going back.”
Zeyl has a slightly tarter response to the people-don’t-value-free-stuff naysayers: “That argument can shove itself up its own butt — sounds like someone who’s never needed a free thing in their life. You know the days when the Seattle Foundation turns KeyArena into a free health care clinic? So many unhoused people show up, and people like Equity actors who didn’t get the 19 weeks they needed to work to qualify for union health care, so they’re standing in the free line to get a filling.”
The more material sticking point is how to afford it. Earlier this year, Intiman announced it had retired all its debt, which allowed for an experiment like this — and according to its most recently publicly available IRS forms, for the 2016 and 2017 tax years, the theater has been hovering around a 73-27 split in contributed versus earned income (in other words, what they’re given versus what they sell). ACT Theatre and the Seattle Rep are closer to a 50-50 split, making the proposition of radical hospitality much more daunting.
Ellis said Theatre Battery covers costs with a combination of grants and individual donations — including many that come after people have seen a show, whether they leave cash anonymously as they exit or come directly to Ellis wanting to write a serious check to support the mission. Zeyl said several Intiman donors raised their gifts (some dramatically) after the board got behind the idea and the theater announced it would try radical hospitality for “The Events” — and, if that test pancake works out, into the foreseeable future.
The radical-hospitality trail
Emilya Cachapero, who leads the Audience (R) Evolution program for the national Theatre Communications Group, said her organization doesn’t know how many U.S. theaters have gone down the radical-hospitality trail blazed by Mixed Blood. “But a great majority of theaters have shifted their thinking about ticket structure,” she said, including several that have introduced all pay-what-you-can (also known as pay-what-you-want) ticketing: Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland; Available Light Theatre in Columbus, Ohio; Coeurage Theatre Company in Los Angeles; The Catastrophic Theatre in Houston.
Intiman and Theatre Battery considered the pay-what-you-can model before rejecting it in favor of radical hospitality.
“We don’t want people to have to put up money — any money — to get into the show,” Zeyl said. Ellis echoed her: “Part of the reason I resisted pay-what-you-can is because ‘pay’ is in the name, and there is a moment when you walk into the theater and someone is reaching out their hand, wanting you to give them money. I don’t want people to be worried about money in any way. People have a conscience, and nobody wants to be the person who doesn’t pay as much.”
Ellis said radical hospitality also introduced a new surprise from moneyed theatergoers: low-level bribery offers. “People would email and say: ‘I’m coming from Seattle and I don’t want to drive down there and wait in line. How much money do I need to donate to get four seats?’ ” Ellis said. “We were like: ‘Uh, we have to hold to our guns on this and not privilege people.’ People are used to that in theater — that their treatment is correlated with their money.”
That goes for the press, too. “Oh, did you reserve your seats online for ‘The Events’ yet?” Zeyl interjected with a smile in her voice during our conversation. “Because we’re not reserving press comps! Tee hee!”
Intiman has lots of questions about how this experiment with “The Events” will shake out, including who shows up, how much money they donate on the way out and what post-show discussions with a crowd not packed with regular theatergoers will sound like. But she’s heartened by the fact that so far, many of the people signing up for “The Events” are new to Intiman’s databases.
“I hope people don’t just bring their bodies, but bring their stories,” Zeyl said. She hopes to develop a story exchange with the potential newcomers, some way to make the theater conversation go in both directions.
“Anyone producing professional theater in Seattle knows only a tiny sliver of the potential — of who’s here, what the stories are. The way stories are monetized and distributed keeps dominant narratives dominant in the U.S. and it’s [expletive] harmful. I think in terms of live storytelling, we have the power to have very healing exchanges, healing moments of understanding we can take with us. We can learn together. And I think that will look a lot different than hunkering down to rinse and repeat models that are just not working.”
“The Events” by David Grieg. Through Aug. 10; Intiman Theatre at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave., Seattle; free; intiman.org