The Subscription Model: Is Agency the New Individuality?

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The argument that the subscription model for theatre is dead and the counter argument that it is not dead, and, in fact, healthy and solvent, are well established. Nowhere was this better explored than in a 2012 article in American Theatre by Jonathan Mandell. The faults inherent in the subscription model and some surprising success stories and artful adaptations of it were catalogued and placed into context by Mandell with clarity and an even hand. It turns out that both arguments are true to some extent. The traditional subscription model, with audiences purchasing tickets up front for a series of productions on set dates is in steep decline. But there are exceptions — the Hollywood Pantages is a notable one — yet the traditional model is still viewed as artistically restrictive and cumbersome for the audience, which is reluctant to pay for a fixed-date theatre season up front. By the same token, many theatres only produce shows that appeal to a large spectrum of the population in order to court audiences, a broad-based approach that leaves no incentive to produce new or more avant-garde work, which leads to artistic stagnation, and, ironically, lower attendance and subscription levels.

Nontraditional versions of the model seem to be doing much better. American Repertory Theater has shifted to a membership system and an “ACTpass”; in Minneapolis, Mixed Blood Theatre has shifted to a “flex pass” and “Radical Hospitality,” a highly efficient entry policy allowing audiences the greatest flexibility and the least commitment. Then there are outliers: the Court in Chicago and The Arts Club Theatre Company of Vancouver have increased subscriptions by offering audiences greater amenities in exchange for greater commitment, from company magazines to behind-the-scenes access.

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It seems to me that all these changes in the subscription model, and all the talk of its life, its death or its resurrection, have less to do with cost, offerings or flexibility than an emergent issue in the zeitgeist: agency.

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Audiences experience nearly unlimited agency in their entertainment forms these days, especially streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, even iTunes. They can watch nearly anything they want whenever they want in whatever context they want. Subscriptions tied to a particular lineup of shows on a particular date at a particular time seem almost alien when you can watch all of Torchwood on Tuesday at 2am. If we chart theatres that have maintained or created successful subscription programs, they have integrated agency as a central component of their philosophy. Mixed Blood does not charge an admissions fee for many of its productions; admission is free on a first come, first served basis, but “flex pass” members can reserve their admission, while still other audience members can guarantee their admission for a $20 “reservation fee.” All this flexibility allows members of the theatre and the general public to pick up and go to a show without necessarily feeling committed to do so. Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre courted subscribers with greater emblems of agency, like backstage access, and in the process turned a rather impressive number of audience members into regular donors. These opportunities did not just create more value for audience members, they instilled a sense of agency.

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Here’s Mandell:

5th Avenue’s “Super Subscribers” campaign demonstrated the error of the conventional wisdom that a theatre’s philanthropists are a distinctly separate species from its consumers.

As a donor with access and tangible products of a show they felt not only respected and valuable, but influential. They felt able to exert their agency on their theatre.

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As Mandell showed, the Hollywood Pantages and the Brooklyn Academy of Music offer different ways to cultivate audience agency. Both have seen a dramatic rise in subscribers. I attended a recent event for first-year subscribers at the Pantages, where the marketing team proudly proclaimed that there were more first-year subscribers this year than in any previous year, which is no small feat considering that it and BAM have not offered subscribers much in the way of agency. However, both are not primarily producing organizations but presenters. The Pantages in particular hosts productions that have been hits elsewhere, often from other Nederlander theatres such as its flagship venue in New York. Here, the audience’s need for agency is subtly satisfied by the productions themselves. Take the Pantages’ current season lineup. Jersey Boys, Pippin, Kinky Boots, Newsies and, to a lesser extent, Motown, are all shows in which the central character(s) seek to claim or maintain agency of action. Productions that do well often tap a concept that is dominating culture at the moment. So if agency has become a defining concept in culture, it makes sense that it would find its way to the Pantages’ stage.

If the resurrection of the subscription model is due at all to agency, as I think it is, then it doesn’t really matter if the model is also inefficient, ineffective or has never really changed. Subscribing to theatres, attending productions — the previous philosophy drew on our desire to express and exalt the individual. If, instead, we now seek to explore agency, then the qualities of the individual are less important than that individual’s ability to exert those qualities with reasonable freedom. When you get down to it, that is agency itself: What does it matter if I love avant-garde drag performance if I can’t see it exactly when and how I want to? Instead of patting ourselves on the back for saving the subscription model, or leaping off a cliff because it failed, or searching for mythical “new models” for audience engagement and development, we must realize that our impulses have shifted, from whom the individual is to what the individual can do.