In the 6/11 Reader, columnist Deanna Isaacs writes about the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation’s new “Money Back Guarantee,” designed to take some of the risk out of theatergoing by supplying refunds to disgruntled audience members. The first show covered by the initiative will be the Collaboraction/Teatro Vista co-production of Migdalia Cruz’s El Grito del Bronx, running July 15-August 2 at the Goodman Theatre. According to Isaacs, “customers would fill out the shortest of forms, explaining why they were dissatisfied, and get their money back on the spot.”
The concept of offering theatergoers their money back raises interesting questions. If an audience member likes a play but thinks the production sucked (“It was much better on Broadway”), does he get back the entire ticket price or just a portion? Would audience members want their money back if they thought the cash would come out of the pocket of some struggling actor or playwright, rather than from the coffers of a well-endowed philanthropic organization? If a kid breaks a neighbor’s window while playing baseball, is that kid going to be more careful next time if his folks pay the damages or if he does? What if the enemies of a certain playwright buy up tickets to his latest show just so they can demand their money back afterwards, helping to foster the impression that the playwright is box-office poison? And what about audience members who DO like a show? Can they get bonuses?
Isaacs raises the point that theater critics, “who usually get the best seats in the house without having to pay for them, aren’t compelled to think about what it means to pony up for a ticket and then have to peer between heads from a seat under the balcony at a show that might turn out to have been overrated.” But “overrated” is an entirely subjective term. One of my favorite theatergoing experiences was seeing Peter Sellars’s high-concept staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman in 1994; viewers walked out in droves–but those who stayed, maybe one-third of the original audience, gave the show a standing ovation. If a daily newspaper critic praises the latest touring version of A Chorus Line, should I be able to get my money back from the theater–or the critic, or his employer–because I disagree? And if I miss out on a life-changing artistic experience because the newspaper’s second-string reviewer ignorantly panned a brilliant new play, can I get reparations?
When I was a member of the Chicago Free Theater, one of the first off-Loop troupes, we performed first and then invited viewers to pay what they thought the show was worth as they left. Maybe that’s the way to go. Or here’s another option: instead of giving people their money back, give them a “store credit,” free admission to another production by the same theater. I applaud the Driehaus Foundation for trying something new. The more innovative ideas, the better. Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. But to my mind, a money-back guarantee only works if everyone does it, or at least if a particular theater does it for every one of its productions, not just the one that sounds iffy.