If you've been staring at the huge banner of the beautiful Renee Fleming on the back of the Civic Opera House — or noting how well the Lyric Opera of Chicago finds the sex and glamour in its promotion of its season of operas — you're witnessing the legacy of the great Danny Newman, the father of the modern-day subscription series.
In his arts-marketing bible "Subscribe Now!" Newman exhorted performing arts groups — opera companies, orchestras, theaters — to focus their efforts on the "saintly subscriber," a loyal, involved patron who will buy a season ticket for all their shows, as distinct from the "fickle" single-ticket buyer who likely won't show up for challenging fare or new work, or merely if it's chilly outside. And who will go across the street the moment a rival has a hotter show.
Newman — a colorful personality with a healthy ego — was on my mind this week when the Theatre Communications Group, a national trade organization, released a study saying that the number of subscribers at American nonprofit theaters had slipped by about 15 percent over the last five years. Single-ticket income, meanwhile, remained roughly constant.
Newman died in 2007 but I'd called him enough times to know roughly what he would have said: Arts groups just aren't doing a good enough job selling subscriptions. Newman had no time for any argument that the days of subscriptions were over.
His mantra remains central. Far more than New York, Chicago remains a town where the top-tier theaters operate on subscription series. Chicago Shakespeare Theater had to close "Follies," despite full houses, to make way for "Elizabeth Rex," which opens Wednesday — and to which it already had sold its subscribers tickets. It's the same story at the Goodman and Steppenwolf — extensions due to popular demand usually have to be squeezed into available weeks before the next show. There is good reason for that: Subscribers who have already bought their seats mitigate risk. Consider the first national tour of "The Addams Family," which was supposed to play Chicago for three weeks but cut its run down to one. That would never have happened had "Addams" been on the Broadway in Chicago subscription base, instead of being an optional show. Similarly, long-established theaters like the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and the Drury Lane Oak Brook have tens of thousands of subscribers who make everything possible. They would have to be nuts to push them away.
Nonetheless, I think that plenty has changed, very quickly, since Newman died and that some nonprofit theaters will, in time, move to more flexible schedules and keep their hit shows running, even if that means asking subscribers to rearrange their plans. Perhaps memberships will, in time, replace subscriptions. In some markets.
Some of the reasons have been around long enough that I remember chatting about them with Newman: the increased mobility of the population, an increase in commitment phobia, a greater desire to make decisions at the last minute. His response: Phewy — theaters aren't putting enough effort into the subscription market.
But in 2007, the likes of Groupon, Gilt and LivingSocial were unknown, and email blasts were in their infancy. It's not hard now to get cheaper deals on single theater tickets — Hot Tix is, of course, another useful source to check. Unlike in New York, you can get those half-price ducats from the comfort of your computer. Assuming you've signed up, special offers by email abound (Broadway in Chicago is constantly offering discount tickets to its roster of shows). In other words, the ticket-buying public is coming to see that it has other options.
And because theaters are businesses, the smarter ones have figured out that if they are going to be selling a lot of tickets at below list price, it makes sense to keep the sticker price high — which is why, I think, you will pay $40 (plus booking fees) for a full-price ticket to see "Assisted Living" at the Profiles Theatre. I like "Assisted Living" very much, but in excess of $40 is steep for a black-box, off-Loop show. Of course, it's not hard to find a special deal. Sticker prices for the arts are becoming a lot like prices at your local car dealer. Only a chump pays them.
Unless the model on display is very, very hot.
If you want to guarantee tickets to "The Book of Mormon" next year — and there is no hotter show currently playing anywhere in the world — you can do so if you buy the full Broadway in Chicago season. If you want great seats to see Nathan Lane in "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman Theatre next season, the best way is to buy a season. And if you want to taste the Mexican-inspired dishes of Rick Bayless in the Lookingglass Theatre production of "Cascabel" this season, you can reserve your spot by buying a subscription to the next season.
You might find that irritating, but I submit it is better for theater and theatergoer than what typically happens on Broadway these days, where dynamic pricing means high-demand shows are only available to those able to drop several hundred dollars a ticket. So if the Chicago way makes you buy a subscription, at least you get the life-enhancing benefit of an entire year of shows.
No wonder that 15 percent decline has not happened here.