Saturday, March 30, 2013

Theatre For Thought, March 30, 2013

joel fishbane

Theatre artists are a generally liberal bunch who applaud freedom of speech and government support of the arts, but there’s at least one thing which brings out the inner fiscal conservative: refunds. The policy on giving them – or not giving them, to be more accurate – is a time honoured theatrical tradition. In almost all cases, theatre tickets are non-refundable for any reason, save those rare cases when a show is cancelled thanks to some random Act of God. 

At least one theatre artist has made a move to change this. On his blog,,  Caleb McMullen, the founder and artistic producer of Vancouver’s Mnemonic Theatre, made the following proclamation: “For every show Mnemonic Theatre produces, we will offer a full-money-back guarantee at intermission, starting with Proof by David Auburn (Vancouver, June 2013).”

“Every show now gets a standing ovation…[audiences] want to remind themselves that it's an occasion--they're applauding themselves.”

McMullen’s bold idea – let’s call it the Intermission Test, for want of a better phrase - was sparked by an article from Globe and Mail critic J. Kelly Nestruck regarding our growing affection for standing ovations. “Theatregoers get up on their feet and clap at the end of plays more than ever,” wrote Nestruck. “The gesture is no longer exceptional.” This is not a particularly Canadian phenomenon. In the summer, 2000 issue of The Sondheim Review, musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim remarked that “Every show now gets a standing ovation…[audiences] want to remind themselves that it's an occasion--they're applauding themselves.” 

As for McMullen, his concern is that if audiences are standing for every show, then artists are receiving a false impression of their satisfaction with our work. The Intermission Test allows a company to give refunds based on aesthetic dissatisfaction and so is born of an effort to better understand the reality of audience opinion. 

It’s a bold idea and at its heart is a realization that, like any business, theatre has to worry about what their customers think. Money-back guarantees are standard in other industries and suggest both a concern with customer service and a confidence in one’s product. On the CBC show Under the Influence, Terry O’Reilly reported the famous story of Macy’s Department store, which gave a woman a full refund – for an item she had purchased at another store. “They simply wanted to do everything in their power to have that lady leave the store happy,” said O’Reilly. “Because a happy customer is a repeat customer.”

The question behind the Intermission Test is a bold one: what is it, exactly, that theatre artists are selling? Or, more importantly, what is it that audiences are buying? In True or False, David Mamet writes that “the price of admission is choice – the choice to participate in the low, the uncertain, the unproved, the unheralded.” If this was what theatre artists advertised, then the Intermission Test would not be needed. But theatre companies do not ever say “Come see our play – we’re trying something and at the very least, it will be unique”. They promise The Most Exciting Night at the Theatre Full of the Greatest Actors of Our Time – even though they know it’s hyperbole and their shows rarely live up to the hype.

One can already hear the cynics opposing McMullen’s proposal: wouldn’t most people, if given the chance, simply leave at intermission with their wallets once again fat. At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I highly doubt this would occur. As Sondheim said, theatre-going is an occasion and most people, having made the effort to travel and book the babysitter, will stay for the duration of the night. But there’s another, more subtle reason. On the same episode of Under the Influence, O’Reilly quoted Danny Meyer, the owner of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, as saying that “all successful companies must have a soul…he wants them to make the customer feel like the staff is on their side.” Under this theory, offering a theatre-goer a refund at intermission would actually encourage them to return, since they now know that your company is sincerely interested in producing theatre that meets their personal satisfaction. 

In other words, it creates the illusion that as a company you are trying to obtain that mythical of all things: pleasing all of the people, all of the time. And maybe it shouldn’t be an illusion at all. Maybe as artists, we should try to please everyone but shifting our focus from making audiences judges to our art to turning them into participants in its creation. 


  1. Fantastic article and observations. As a young an avid theatre goer, I am always happy to hear artists talking about the audience. I just attended a play where the first round of applause did not have anyone up on their feet. One of the actors looked at the audience searchingly, almost incredulous that they did not garner a standing ovation. As the audience continued with their half-hearted clapping for the second appearance of the cast to bow, a few people did stand up. Needless to say, the actor looked more satisfied. It seems like we're spoiling our actors by handing out the standing O like free candy. It's become customary. On the other hand, as an audience member it seems like it is almost expected of us to give a standing O. We give the actors an undue standing O and in turn they keep expecting it of us, whether or not it was a truly remarkable show. It's a cycle.

    1. I think intermission money back guarantee might work, because customers will always appreciate the option to get their money back. Good strategy, as opposed to a tactic of an insert telling audiences how to respond. That is undermining the audience. The theatre audience is a dedicated crowd, I doubt many will be leaving after half the show just so they can make money from it.


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