Theaters across the country are seeing their subscriber bases erode. More and more young companies choose not to become a traditional subscription house – moving by choice or circumstance from venue to venue, relying on single ticket buyers. While the subscription model doesn’t work for every company, or indeed every customer, it does offer valid strategies for financing the art form and developing its audience.

The nonprofit theater subscription model has its roots in the popular 19th century community concert series and the booming magazine business, flowering with the regional theater movement of the 1950s and 60s. Commercial theaters have always solicited investors for their projects, paying them back in cash if the box office meets expectations. Early nonprofit guidelines restricted that type of commercial activity, and small theaters couldn’t successfully attract business investors anyway. By asking the audience to buy their tickets ahead of time, nonprofits could get the upfront money needed for production and overhead. By front loading subscribers into the run, they could create the feeling of ticket demand and build word of mouth to sell single tickets. In exchange, the subscriber got guaranteed seats and other privileges like free exchanges and discounts.

Today, subscription revenue – particularly the early renewals from loyal customers – is a key strategy for cash flow in a nonprofit. With thousands of dollars in subscription money coming in now, theaters can “borrow” the cash for this year’s expenses from next year’s ticket revenue. It’s the Ponzi scheme that can work because the investors are paid back with art, not money.

The late Danny Newman, longtime marketing director of Chicago’s Lyric Opera is credited with single-handedly creating the subscription movement. His books Subscribe Now! and Waiting in the Wings (co-written with the Twin Cities’ own Julie Dalgleish) are still the bibles for subscription theaters. From Tupperware™-like home parties to aggressive direct mail and telemarketing, and even pizza parties for city cab drivers, Newman showed regional theaters how to build an audience base. While the marketing tactics always change, his principles are still true.

So why doesn’t every theater run on a subscription model? The 9-18 months of advance planning and marketing, as well as the promise of doing a similar number of works in the same time slots every year can be an unrealistic burden for companies that create original work like Margolis Brown or the late Jeune Lune. Purposefully itinerant companies, like Frank Theatre, who match the space to the production, or Ten Thousand Things, who take their shows to their target audiences, can’t guarantee seating, capacity or even venues. And if you have a hit, you can’t extend the run because you have another show to start up.

Planning ahead can also be a burden for many types of customers. I know subscribers who have packages to multiple theaters and music groups. Not only do they have the cash to buy all these tickets months before the performances, they cheerfully take on the task of managing competing dates and exchange policies. Well, that doesn’t work if you have an erratic work schedule, childcare challenges, your own cash flow problems, or don’t want to do all this planning to get to your entertainment. There are regular theater goers of all ages and incomes who simply won’t subscribe, even though they may see multiple shows at the same company during a season.

Working with subscribers

At Park Square, subscribers remain our life blood, providing the early investment and attendance needed assure a decent audience. For us, the subscriber relationship is not just financial – it’s based on mutual trust and respect.

We’ve worked very hard to get the subscribers we have. Many of them are incredibly loyal –20% have been with us for ten years or more. They have seen big changes in our play selection and production since they first joined. Our first Equity contract was in 1997, the year we stopped describing ourselves as “classic theater for a classic city” to produce Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. And yet, folks who joined us for a season of Shaw, Shakespeare and Miller have kept signing up for shows like Byrony Lavery’s Frozen (a prose poem about child abduction and forgiveness). When asked to name their “peak experiences” at Park Square, subscribers invariably name shows that they only saw because they bought the whole season. Contrary to the fear of companies without subscriber bases, we’re able to say that the support our patrons provide for us does not make us a slave to their preconceived preferences.

More than titles or discounts, therefore, loyal patrons are buying an emotional journey from a brand they trust. We don’t expect them to always enjoy where the journey takes them. When Park Square produced the area premiere of Love! Valour! Compassion! (in a season that included Harvey and Of Mice and Men), we gave them the choice to “opt out” of that show, but keep their guaranteed seats. Most chose to travel with us to that moonlit lake full of naked men embattled by AIDS. Many of them wrote poignant letters endorsing the production and there were surprisingly few nasty notes or cancelled tickets.

So if we can’t always tell what they’ll like or predict what they’ll hate, how do we program for subscribers? We start with the knowledge that they are smart, interesting people. We respect them as much as we respect our artists. We try to be honest and authentic about the shows we’re planning, and then work hard to deliver. By consistently delivering, we can give a subscriber the confidence to go to a show they might not like, or explore an uncomfortable topic, because they know it will be done well. It will be the experience they expected.

Because subscribers and donors have always been Park Square’s core constituents, we’ve worked hard to treat them well – over and over and over again. Last year, Park Square launched its Golden Ticket Club to recognize and reward loyal subscribers. We also started testing ways to cultivate those first-timers, who are least likely to renew. In addition to a few perks and handwritten notes, it’s amazing what can happen when you gather twenty subscribers – of every “vintage” – for a glass of wine before the show to say thank you.

I find that when I meet audience members, I hear nuances that turn the data from surveys and sales reports into a true audience development plan. I’m only just learning how to communicate back to our audiences. One tactic I’m trying now is to capture a “typical subscriber” viewpoint of the scripts we’ve chosen. In exchange for tickets, one subscriber, who is also a good writer, is reading all the scripts for the season and writing her own version of the synopsis, tag lines, and marketing copy. It’s amazing what she sees that my “marketing brain” misses. I’d like to expand this tactic, getting different types of audience members to write, or at least give input, on each show’s multiple themes and messages. (Mind you, we’ll still be choosing the plays!)

Can a theater that doesn’t fit the subscription model still learn from it? Any theater that can authentically articulate its own aesthetic and deliver the experience it promises can also build an audience that is interested in that experience by listening to them, giving them great customer service, creating incentives for early purchases and repeat attendance, and by finding ways to inspire the level of investment their art requires.

(The common, alternative solution to these challenges – for both theaters and customers – is the flex pass. Theater in the Round has offered a great flex pass for years and The Jungle just introduced a four-ticket option. Park Square used to be a “flex house,” but many customers would forget to attend, or they would wait to come until the last weekend – leaving us with empty seats at the beginning of the run and limited inventory at the end. Although we are now a traditional subscription house, we did add a version of the flex ticket option last season. So far, it’s been meeting its goals to motivate non-subscribers to buy earlier and to attend more often.)

Despite the continued erosion of subscriptions nationwide, there’s still plenty of life left in the traditional model. People who like what subscriptions offer will sign up when their life allows them to. The industry is slowly learning, however, that there are many theater goers who simply won’t subscribe. The challenge we’re exploring is how to track, cultivate, recognize, and reward as many types of customers as we can and turn them into loyal fans. One thing’s for sure: developing audiences is about relationships, not transactions. Rigid ideas about programming, marketing and development no longer apply.

The challenge all artists and administrators face is keeping audiences engaged and willing to pay the costs of producing theater. When we have earned an audience’s trust, we can dare to risk. When we have inspired their financial support, we can do our best work. When we have earned their loyalty, we can fail and they will give us another chance.