Most legit nonprofits struggle to bring in new auds, but Off Broadway’s Signature Theater is having no trouble at all.
For its 15th-anniversary season, the theater teamed with Time Warner, which subsidized an initiative that reduced ticket prices to every performance to just $15.
Results have been dramatic. The first three productions of the initiative — Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” John Guare’s “Landscape of the Body” and August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” — have played to an average 105% capacity.
What’s more, Signature has logged such an impressive flood of new ticketbuyers that other nonprofits around the country are starting to initiate similar programs.
And with the audience influx coinciding with a run of critical success, Signature’s reputation is getting a boost that a.d. Jim Houghton hopes will propel the org toward future expansions, including a potential new downtown home.
Founded in 1991 by Houghton, a former actor, the Signature focuses on American playwrights, often fishing outside the pool of standard classics. The roster of scribes who have gotten seasonlong showcases of their work begins with Romulus Linney and extends through Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Adriane Kennedy, Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, Paula Vogel and Guare.
“As a writer, you just keep coming back,” says Guare. “You really feel it’s a theater you belong to.”
“They make the playwright the thrust of the work,” echoes Ruben Santiago-Hudson, one of the stars of the original Broadway production of “Seven Guitars,” who directed the Signature production earlier this fall. “It’s not about some star trip.”
In general, the theater has presented one new work from each writer as well as revivals drawn from the scribe’s body of work. For the latter, the theater usually opts for lesser-known pieces.
“We tend to gravitate toward plays that were troubled,” Houghton says.
Lately, his choices have been winning over critics — “Bountiful,” “Landscape” and “Seven Guitars” all won plaudits and extended their runs.
There was even the possibility of a Broadway transfer for “Bountiful,” fueled by speculation of Tony candidacy for lead actress Lois Smith. Due in part to a crowded booking situation on the Rialto, the transfer never came together (an experience Houghton calls “incredibly frustrating”).
The company also has managed to boost Wilson’s reputation as a hitmaker.
Although no one denies that the scribe was one of America’s most important dramatists, his work is rarely a huge draw for audiences. The writer’s most recent Broadway outing, “Gem of the Ocean,” logged a disappointing 2½-month run and failed to recoup.
But thanks to the $15 ticket initiative, Signature is helping the late playwright bring in crowds with its bargain-priced, three-play season of Wilson plays. “Two Trains Running,” which officially opens Dec. 3, sold out and then extended by two weeks before previews had even begun Nov. 7.
The subsidized ticket began with a “Signature Series” legacy season, during which playwrights who’d had seasons in the past (Foote, Guare) got productions of an earlier work. (The same thing was done for the theater’s 10th season.) But the impetus for the initiative was the Wilson season, along with the example set by the Travelex £10 season at the National Theater in London.
“Pricing has been making the theatergoing experience prohibitive,” Houghton says. And most of Wilson’s shows about African-American life through the 20th century have played Gotham only in Broadway incarnations: “Here is a major writer whose work has never been presented in New York for anything other than premium prices.”
For Time Warner, the $15 ticket initiative fit with its philanthropic goal of opening up accessibility to the arts.
“We wanted to tie it to cultivating diverse audiences in New York City,” says Lisa Quiroz, TW’s senior VP of corporate responsibility. “August Wilson is the perfect playwright to test the waters of this.”
She adds, “From the perspective of arts institutions, you’re in a city that’s increasingly diverse. In order to ensure future audiences, you have to make an effort to reach out.”
It’s worked. Signature reports that 50% of single-ticket buyers to “Bountiful,” “Landscape” and “Seven Guitars” had never before bought tickets to the Signature, and 99% of auds say they would attend another Signature production in the future.
Group sales went up 250%, and 30% of the theater’s 3,500-strong subscription base went to new households.
Those are impressive figures — so impressive that the True Colors troupe in Atlanta has started a similar ticket program funded by a corporate partnership, and Indianpolis’ Phoenix Theater Company credits the Signature with inspiring its CheapSeats program.
Houghton wants the $15 price to continue to exist for Signature, even if it’s not possible to make every ticket to every performance $15. (As it is, performances during extensions of a play’s run are not funded by the program, so tickets revert to the standard $55 price tag.)
TW anticipates helping Signature keep the policy alive in some form. “We’re hoping to hold onto this,” Quiroz says. “Time Warner and Signature are married for a while.”
With the theater’s profile raised by the ticket program, Houghton aims to continue with his plans for the company’s growth.
In the works is a possible move downtown (current location is in the far west of midtown Manhattan), with a three-stage venue at Ground Zero that may or may not materialize. The proposal is now in the city’s hands.
That new complex would help the company accommodate productions that come out of its planned three-year residency program for early- to mid-career playwrights, who would write one new play a year for the Signature, thereby helping each writer “build a body of work,” as Houghton puts it.
That broad perspective on the arc of a writer’s overall career has always been important to Signature’s mission. “I often use the model of passing through a gallery of a particular artist,” Houghton says. “You pass through that body of work, and you know more.”