Little Green Pig Wants to Make All of Its Shows Next Season Free with the Aid of More Privileged Sectors of the Community | Theater | Indy Week
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Little Green Pig Wants to Make All of Its Shows Next Season Free with the Aid of More Privileged Sectors of the Community 

click to enlarge Little Green Pig's current production The Changeling - PHOTO BY ERIN BELL/BULL CITY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Erin Bell/Bull City Photography
  • Little Green Pig's current production The Changeling

At a time when it seems like the price of everything is going up, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern is cutting its ticket prices this fall.

To zero.

Durham's longtime theatrical mavericks typically charge $15–$20 for a show, but they want to remove that economic barrier while still being able to pay artists for their labor. They recently announced a crowdfunding push to make seats for the three mainstage shows in their fourteenth season free. Though local groups like Bare Theatre have offered individual productions like ShakesBEER on a pass-the-hat basis, Little Green Pig is the first to attempt a full season on a zero-dollar-ticket model.

"We'd been talking about it since the inception of the company," managing director Dana Marks says. She and Jaybird O'Berski studied organizations like public radio and the Smithsonian Institution, which use subscription platforms and have investors who buy into the value of their missions. Two years ago, Little Green Pig started funding via Patreon, where recurring donations now amount to more than $18,000 in support per year. But that's only about 40 percent of what it needs to make next season's tickets free: $12,000 over the next four months and a total of $45,000 by next May. The hope is that the zero-dollar-ticket goal will increase Patreon donatations because of its ethical importance.

"Audiences for serious, provocative art-house theater [are] elite, typically white, affluent, and over forty," the theater noted in its announcement. "We need to expand this base to include people of color as well as those who can't afford to pay full price."

Little Green Pig will also accept at-the-door donations, solicit endowments and grants, and give pop-up performances around the city, in the vein of recent musical revues devoted to the songs of Tom Waits and Elvis Costello at local bars.

"We've been thinking about guac-a-thons—making guacamole—and dance-a-thons," Marks says, laughing. "Getting the community together and having fun is the spirit of the thing."

Theater companies have long devised creative ways to generate support. The Barter Theatre in Abington, Virginia, thrived at the height of the Great Depression by accepting meat and produce from local farmers. Today, while companies like Greensboro's Triad Stage have quietly adopted dynamic pricing (electronically adjusting ticket values based on demand) to increase revenue, Little Green Pig is forging a path in the opposite direction.

There are some precedents, if not local ones. A "Radical Hospitality" initiative at Minneapolis's Mixed Blood Theatre keeps a block of general admission tickets free for all performances—or patrons can pay to "guarantee" a seat. And Chicago's Theatre Y makes all seats available free while patrons subscribe at various levels, just like Little Green Pig wants to do.

Other companies offer variations on a "pay what you can" model. For a "Living Ticket" at New York's Flex Theatre Ensemble, theatergoers can pay through service, whether it's getting the word out about a production or physical labor. And at Philadelphia's Azuka Theatre, audiences pay what they want after the show, on their way out. Letting patrons choose ticket prices might seem like a dicey business model. But in two seasons of doing so, Azuka achieved an unpredicted trifecta: attendance up by a third, a surge in new audience members, and a $3 increase in the average amount paid per ticket.

In each of these cases, communities came through beyond predicted expectations when asked to support something they believe in. Though it's early, there are signs that the same could happen here. When the company put out a "soft announcement" about the zero-dollar-ticket plan before Christmas, Marks says, "Bam, bam, bam, we got ten new patrons right away. People want to be involved in keeping Little Green Pig alive and flourishing. It's so humbling and exciting."

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