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The Roots of Downstage's Pay-It-Forward Program

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Image credit: Tim Nguyen, Citrus Photography

It’s interesting to step back and remember where an idea took root. In 2013-14, I took part in the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) offered through the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. The highlight of the program for me was working on a season-long Applied Learning Project, for which I focused on ways to remove barriers to attending theatre.

Carving out time away from the day-to-day business of running our company was energizing, and I happily dove into research about emerging best practices. Then, with guidance from program faculty and support from our board, I conducted three focus groups with people who don’t typically attend theatre during our run of Wajdi Mouawad’s A Bomb in the Heart. These conversations revealed three major barriers: location, time of performance, and cost.

Since that time, we’ve piloted responses to the location barrier by touring our work to suburban and rural community halls, as well as experimenting with free online dissemination of shows like Jordan Tannahill’s rihannaboi95 which was livestreamed online and reached a demographically diverse audience in seven different countries. We’ve also shifted our performance times to better accommodate the lives of potential patrons.

However, it was the cost barrier that really captured my imagination during my season at RAMP. This truly complex challenge was expressed in three unique ways during our focus groups.

First was the assumed cost, with a night out at the theatre seen as expensive and for the elite. Despite our ticket prices maxing out at $25, perceptions shaped in part by larger theatre companies meant that some Calgarians who would otherwise be interested in our work had assumed the cost would be well beyond their means.

The second expression of this barrier was investment risk, as articulated by a whip-smart high school student in one of our focus groups. If you’ve never seen a play and don’t know what to expect — or worse, have only ever seen deadly dull theatre that doesn’t speak to your life — why take a risk with your limited entertainment dollars?

The third aspect of this barrier is, of course, the real cost. With 1 in 10 Calgarians living in poverty and many others on the edge even before the recent downturn, even deeply discounted tickets are out of reach for many.

It was clear that tackling this multifaceted barrier required not just tweaks to our existing practice but a bold new way forward to ensure access for all. In my research, I had learned about an initiative by Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis called Radical Hospitality that provides no-cost access to all of their productions. With Radical Hospitality as an inspiration, Downstage built on the work of my Applied Learning Project to design our Pay-It-Forward program, which launched during the recent run of Matthew MacKenzie’s Benefit in April, 2016. The program currently offers 25% of tickets at no cost on a first-come, first-served basis, with the eventual goal of reaching a 50-50 split of paid to no-cost tickets. If they enjoy the show, program participants are invited to ‘pay forward’ the opportunity by spreading the word to others who may be interested, or making a donation at any level so that others can access tickets in the future.

We’re looking forward to building on Pay-It-Forward’s promising launch to make the program clearer and easier to access, knowing that its ultimate success will depend on sustained community engagement to spread the word to Calgarians who wouldn’t normally attend theatr

e, as well as our parallel work to reduce or remove other barriers. In the 2016-17 season, we’ll be debuting a project with the support of the Rozsa Foundation that will further explore new models of delivering theatre to allow for greater access— this time through small, playful participatory arts events that explore the themes of a World Premiere production over the course of a full season. We look forward to reporting back as this project shapes up and sharing what we learn as new initiatives spring forth from my work during RAMP.

Ellen Close will be taking part in a round-table panel discussion titled Is Oil a Dirty Word? Stories from the Humanities, on Sunday May 29th, 6:30-8:00pm at Theatre Junction Grand. The event is free and registration information can be found here. Her graphic novel, My Family and Other Endangered Species, premiered in 2014 with the support of the Rozsa Foundation and can be purchased at Playwrights Canada Press.

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