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To pay or not to pay

Published : Jul 1, 2016, 2:38 am IST
Updated : Jul 1, 2016, 2:38 am IST

Stephan Schimdke from the Vienna Festival (from left), Ragnheidur Skuladottir from Rekjavik’s Theatre Lokal Festival, Cathy Boyce from Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, and Brad Carlin from Texas’ Fusebox Festival.

Stephan Schimdke from the Vienna Festival (from left), Ragnheidur Skuladottir from Rekjavik’s Theatre Lokal Festival, Cathy Boyce from Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, and Brad Carlin from Texas’ Fusebox Festival.

Last week I sat in far flung Whitehorse (Canada) and watched four programmers argue the merits and demerits of charging audiences entry fees for performances at their respective festivals. This was part of Canada’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival, who had just shifted to a ‘pay what you like’ model for certain performances.

At one end of the spectrum sat Texas’ Fusebox, who had just switched to a completely free model, and found that it has paid huge dividends. Ticket sales used to account for about 20% of their budget, and by going to a ‘free’ model they doubled their attendance, in spite of reducing their advertising costs. This in turn attracted new funders and sponsors, and they were easily able to cover the short fall. Although Fusebox took no money, they did collect data (contact details, etc.) in exchange for the ticket.

At the other extreme, sat the Vienna Festival, for whom data collection was almost reprehensible. The festival was created as a post WWII reaction to Nazism. They are only too familiar about the dangers of providing information to organisations. Their festival programming is purely artistic, keeping it protected from any ideological or political trends that might be the fashion of the times. Similarly, by paying for a ticket, audience members ensured their anonymity. The shows are large and lavish, and the tickets covered only a fraction of the cost of the festival, which is otherwise underwritten by the city council.

While everyone agrees that by making things free, you can make art accessible to all income groups, but there is also the concern for the work being taken for granted. In India particularly, the ticket prices to live performance are already quite nominal when compared to the West. Yet there are scores of ‘free’ events like the Nehru Theatre Festival and they are often empty, despite all the passes being collected. The ICCR for example have a very stringent policy that all their programmes should be non-ticketed. Unfortunately, in addition to the vacant seats, audience etiquette is also abandoned, so a world-renowned artist like Cindy Acker has to deal with loud and boisterous late comers almost half an hour into the performance.

While non-ticketed events do democratise the gap between haves and have nots, and upholds the ideal that art should be for everyone, there is also the fact that the means of access to the distribution of the passes must also be democratised. If the passes are available online, or communication is only by newspaper ads, then automatically you are catering to a certain income group that has access to those things, thereby defeating the reason why the programme is free in the first place.

Also in an environment when artists are already the most poorly paid section of a festival, free entry provides organisers another reason to demand reduced rates from performers. The Kala Ghoda Arts festival for example has reduced its performance fee budget steadily over the years, and this has affected the level of performers it can attract.

The middle road or the ‘pay-what-you-like’ model has worked very well internationally. Often collections from a particular performance far exceed potential ticket sales. The value of a piece is then incumbent on the audience member after they have watched the work. However this is only successful for highly evolved audiences who appreciate the hard work and finesse that has gone into creating something. Prithvi Theatre used to try a similar programme with their ‘jhola’ system at their Horniman Circle Garden performances. Many groups were incredibly happy with their collections after performing in the idyllic gardens. However, for most audiences seeking ‘entertainment’, it is unusual to pay more than a token, irrespective of how much you enjoyed the performance. Perhaps this is where crowd-funding comes in. Most funders are fully aware that what they are getting in terms of ‘rewards’ is in no way commensurate to the amount of money they are ‘investing’. Instead they believe in the value of the project and will fund it because they think it is important that the work sees the light of day.

The fact is that any work of art costs money and ticket sales are never going to pay for the entire thing. The challenge, therefore, is always about who pays for the short fall. It’s that age old conundrum of “price versus value”.