The Castle, Oracle Theatre
The Castle, Oracle Theatre

Oracle Productions is a shoestring theater, founded nearly a decade ago by a clutch of Barat College students and now based in a tiny, 44-seat storefront at 3809 N. Broadway. But there’s nothing small about the members’ thinking.

About a year ago, shortly after their founding artistic director departed in search of a salary, the Oracle folks decided to reconsider their mission. The new purpose they’ve set for themselves, in their own odd phrase, is to “revitalize the hunger for cultural experiences in our community.”

With that in mind, they announced this spring that they’re expanding the scope of their programming “beyond theatre arts” and redefining Oracle as a “Public Arts Organization.” The change in nomenclature was accompanied by a striking new business plan: the company, which produces a three-play season, has sworn off ticket sales. Henceforth, like PBS, NPR, “or even your church,” Oracle will give it away for free. They’ve become, they declared, a “Public Access Theatre.”

The announcement included a rationale that boiled down to: we’re a charity, why aren’t we acting like one? Signed by executive director Brad Jayhan-Little and artistic director Ben Fuchsen, it noted that most theater companies in Chicago are nonprofit corporations, which enables them to collect donations from individuals, corporations, foundations, and the government. “We have a duty to give back as much as we ask from the community,” Jayhan-Little and Fuchsen wrote, yet “we also charge commercial prices for our seats,” putting up “barriers” to attendance. (“If you look at other not-for-profits, like food banks and shelters, they’re not charging the people they’re serving,” Jayhan-Little elaborated last week.)

Then they threw down the gauntlet: “This is the status quo in Chicago theatre, and Oracle is challenging it.”

Are you listening Goodman, Steppenwolf, Lyric Opera, CSO?

For Oracle, free theater is just the beginning. “Driven by a vision,” as the announcement put it, they’ll be launching drama clubs in nursing homes and homeless shelters, hosting film festivals for college students, and offering yoga and Butoh classes as well as late-night performances. “All of these programs will be lucrative for the artists and educators involved” yet offered to the public “at little or no cost.”

“When you look at the numbers, ticket sales are not a huge percentage of most arts organizations’ budgets,” Jayhan-Little notes. That’s at least true for his organization. Often discounted through Hot Tix and other outlets, Oracle’s $20 tickets accounted for only 19 percent of the company’s operating budget—pegged at $56,000 for 2010-2011—while the industry average, according to the Theater Communications Group, a national organization for nonprofit theaters, is about 40 percent.

Brad Jayhan-Little
Brad Jayhan-Little

With the incongruity of operating as a nonprofit while charging for services nagging at him, Jayhan-Little says he started looking at how other organizations operate. Noting that “Google is giving us all these services for free yet they’re taking over the world” by selling advertising, he hit on the idea of giving away seats but selling subscriptions.

That’s not the double-talk it sounds like, he argues. “Subscription in today’s theater community is, ‘You give me $75, and I’ll give you two tickets to three shows next year.’ With us it’s more along the lines of or Netflix,” where you pay a monthly fee and take your pick of the services offered. Oracle patrons sign up for a particular level of automatic payment and in return get reservations for productions (at $5 per month you’re guaranteed one seat for every show; at $100 “you pretty much make the rules”) plus “live video feeds from the theater, insider information when we’re doing special or nonpublicized shows, and access to some of the rental companies that come into our space.” Next year subscribers will also be able to avail themselves of classes and film screenings Oracle’s planning to launch—including a workshop initially designed for the theater community that’ll offer life skills “like how do you pay your taxes.”

Then there’s the satisfaction of helping pay for outreach programs that the company hopes will make them attractive to the organizations that give out grants for that sort of thing.

“The beauty of the subscription system,” Jayhan-Little notes, “is that the repeat donation is built in.”

And so far he rates it a success. “I was like, ‘Holy crap! How did this happen?’ Within three months we had revenues from the subscription program that equaled the [budgeted] annual ticket sales for our shows.”

Beginning with the new season in October, “you come to our door, you come right in and sit down,” Jayhan-Little says. “If you’re between paychecks,” no problem. “To me, it’s not enough to produce art as a service. I believe that we have the responsibility to open that art up to as many people as we can. If I sink the ship with it, so be it.”

But the free-theater business model isn’t new, and isn’t necessarily risky. Quest Theatre Ensemble, for example, has been quietly doing donation-only work since it was founded eight years ago by a group of friends from Indiana State University. Operating out of a 99-seat space in the lower level of the athletic building at Saint Gregory Catholic Church in Andersonville (where they’re rent-free artists in residence), Quest produces three upbeat shows annually, including its touring Christmas production, Blue Nativity.

“When we first moved here, a lot of us felt something was lacking in Chicago theater,” says Quest production manager Jason Bowen. “It just didn’t seem accessible enough,” financially or demographically. “We believe in the power of people experiencing live theater together,” but “not everybody can afford to go downtown and see a show for $90. Instead they’re going to a movie or renting one and staying home.” And, he says, it seemed like “every theater had a niche audience. We wanted to do free theater for everybody, no matter their age or what language they speak or where they come from.”

The downside to free theater, Bowen says, is the prevalent belief that you get what you pay for. “It took a while to be recognized—by peers, the press, anybody—in part because we’re free.” Apparently that phase is coming to an end, though: Quest earned five non-Equity Jeff nominations this year and took home an award for its puppetry.

The 15 company members all have day jobs and handle administrative duties as unpaid volunteers, but they’re paid a stipend when they participate in a production. The budget this year is $75,000. At the conclusion of each show Bowen explains to the audience how Quest operates and asks for donations. And here’s an interesting statistic: the money collected from audiences after the fact covers a whopping 65 percent of their annual budget.

Research published in the July 2010 issue of Science by University of California assistant marketing professor Ayelet Gneezy indicates that a name-your-own-price product with a charitable component will produce the highest possible revenue, beating out set-price options. Of course, if everybody’s doing it, that might change.