In 2006 the City Paper ran an article, "Pay to Play," about how Charleston's museums and theaters set their admission prices. The article referenced prices at Charleston Stage, where in 2006, a theater-goer could see a play for $25, and a musical for $35.
A decade later, those prices have increased. Charleston Stage's marketing director Beth Curley says that adult, general admission tickets to plays start at $30, and the highest price for a musical ticket can cost upwards of $65. What hasn't changed in the past 10 years, though, is Charleston Stage's Pay What You Will nights (now called PNC Pay As You Please), preview shows that ask guests to donate a minimum of $10 and more if they so desire.
A 2014 Guardian article explores the reasoning behind Pay What You Will (PWYW) nights, ultimately arguing that theaters take a worthy risk when they let audiences set prices. "... the fact was when price was no longer a barrier, then other barriers — uncertainties about how to behave, what to wear, even approaching the box office — were indirectly reduced too. The whole idea of going to the theatre became less of a risk," the Guardian's Lyn Gardner wrote.
"People are driven by ticket costs," says Sharon Graci, artistic director of PURE Theater, which also offers PWYW nights. "The reason we do it is to eliminate a barrier to participation," she says.
Graci has seen how PWYW nights have recruited new theater-goers — people who can pay anywhere from five cents to the cost of a regular ticket, around $32. Unlike Charleston Stage, PURE doesn't set a minimum donation, a choice they made to make the theater as accessible as possible. "Orienting to something you've never done is a huge barrier. Someone who calls asking, 'How should I dress,' indicates that the need [to be accessible] is great enough," says Graci.
Curley also sees PWYW nights as opportunities for non-theater-goers to check out shows they normally couldn't afford, saying that families in particular benefit from the reduced ticket prices. And those families aren't one-time attendees. Both Curley and Graci see repeat participants of PWYW nights.
Charleston Stage tickets go up at midnight the night before a PWYW performance, and Curley says that they almost always sell out within the first few hours. Graci says that PWYW nights at PURE see between 80 percent and 100 percent capacity.
So who's coming to these shows? Curley sees audiences that are usually 35 years and older; Graci says that on PWYW nights, PURE sees audiences that are younger than their regular performance attendees.
Both Curley and Graci see enthusiastic audiences, people who are vocal and responsive to the first few nights of a production. "We use the preview performance as a way to gauge audiences," says Curley. "It helps us and it helps the patrons." Graci seconds this sentiment, saying "I see it as incredibly positive. We have more people talking about our work — how is that bad?"
Not everyone in Charleston is so keen on PWYW nights, though. Flowertown Players' artistic director JC Conway thinks that PWYW "devalues the art." "We in Charleston really value our restaurants. We consider ourselves one of the top foodie towns in the world. People don't understand that we have the same amount of talent in theater," he says.
Conway doesn't disagree with the notion that everyone should have access to the theater, though. While Flowertown doesn't offer PWYW nights, it does offer up specials like rush tickets, reduced tickets offered at the door on certain nights. Conway doesn't think that reduced ticket prices should be the norm, though. "It needs to be $20-$30 for a ticket. It doesn't need to be $800 for Hamilton," he says.
Conway says that the value of a theater-going experience overall could be hurt by a culture of PWYW nights. "When you're sitting at home watching TV, it's like fast food. It's readibly available, and not the same amount of value. It's not the same experience as going to the movies, which is like Olive Garden." Needless to say, Conway considers going to a play in Charleston as valuable as going to one of our lauded restaurants. "We need to maintain the idea that it costs something to go to the theater," says Conway.
After a decade of PWYW nights, Charleston Stage — a theater that holds about 460 audience members (to PURE's and Flowertown's approximately 100 seats each) — doesn't seem to be getting rid of reduced ticket prices anytime soon. Perhaps its the size of a theater that determines the effectiveness of its PWYW nights, or maybe its the culture around theater-going in general.
"It's a double-edged sword," says Conway of PWYW nights. "It could come back to bite us."
Charleston Stage's next PNC Pay As You Please night will be held on Wed. Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. for Hairspray. Tickets go on sale at midnight, Sept. 6.
PURE's next PWYW night will be held on Thurs. Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. for The Christians. Tickets will be available for purchase at the door.
Head to flowertownplayers.org to stay up-to-date on rush ticket offerings.