AMERICAN THEATER | A theater grows in Brooklyn thanks to subscriptions


CHALLENGE
Making theater affordable for its audience and sustainable for its creators

PLAN
Adopt a monthly subscription model similar to streaming platforms

WHAT WORKS
Establish a cumulative growth model, so that recurring revenue from memberships ends up supporting the theater

WHAT NEEDS WORK
Build a large community of loyal and accessible members and artists in Brooklyn and beyond

AND AFTER
Expand subscription programming to include online streaming options and VR content


super secret arts try something different. The recently opened theater in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn is doing its part to change the economic paradigm around theatrical creation. For $25 a month, subscribers get unlimited access to the theater’s programming, which includes stage productions and an assortment of nightly events, from live music to improv and sketch comedy, open-mic cabarets and other experimental works.

Founding artistic director Toby Singer says he wanted to do theater responsibly. The Black Lives Matter movement, We See You White American Theater, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all sparked valuable conversations about representation, access, safety, and equity in the performing arts industry. But Singer noticed that financing options were often missing from those conversations.

“There was very little talk about the economic reality of theater creation,” Singer said. “So it got me thinking, basically, what would a theater company look like that could break away from traditional ways of funding the arts? You have the not-for-profit models, you have the kind of large-cap corporate business models like Broadway and major tours.

But how can you change the industry paradigm if you’re still dependent on the same old institutions? Singer eventually landed on a subscription model for Super Secret Arts, a strategy borrowed from streaming networks like Netflix and Hulu. The subscription concept is not entirely new to theatre, of course. Many theaters offer season passes, advanced ticket packages, or membership tiers. But Super Secret Arts has even more to offer.

“‘Subscription’ is used a lot in the theater world,” Singer explained. “But usually that means you buy tickets for each show in advance, you have your regular seat, that’s it. And often, it is linked to a donation that you make in addition.

Super Secret Arts works differently: the $25 monthly subscription gives members free access to all performances in a given month. As long as there is room to accommodate them, members can come at any time, as many times as they wish. Plus, members have the option to bring guests for a discounted rate of $15. The Super Secret Arts team is also in the process of securing a variety of member benefits and discounts at local businesses, bars and restaurants for subscriber enjoyment. So far, according to Singer, more than 300 members have joined the Super Secret Arts community since it opened in February.

It may be true that you can get more for your money in Brooklyn. As for what to expect from Super Secret Arts, there’s sure to be something for everyone. Bonita Jackson This soil, these seeds… plays until April 30. There is a weekly Monday evening super secret cabaretthe new music Sunday social (possibly with a late brunch), Night Boy: A Comedy Variety Show, Story Dungeon: A comedy improv show powered by AI Dungeon, Working title: Improvisational Musical Theater, brooklyn music Brass Queens and The Climaticsthe premiere of the musical memoir List of injured, and much more.

The theater currently has an open submissions policy and the team likes to build cabarets around unconventional locations, such as their astrology Sing through the signs. Super Secret Arts plans to hold a slightly tongue-in-cheek conversation Festival on the Gowanus for new works in July.

Over the next few months, with the help of Kevin Laibson, Singer’s business partner and resident virtual reality specialist, the company also plans to introduce a variety of digital features, including exclusive video and audio content, exclusive installations digital and virtual reality. performances for members.

“That’s going to be a central part in the near future of this value proposition for our members,” Singer says, “that you can basically come in person anytime for the $25, or, if you’re sick or you’re tired of work, or you just don’t want to get off the couch, or COVID is scary – all of which are valid reasons – you have the option to watch what we’re doing in space from home. in virtual reality, if you’re one of those people who has glasses and likes it, or just on your laptop or another type of screen.

Singer recognizes the risks associated with this operating model.

“At first it’s a reduction – there’s an inherent loss in this model, because you’re basically building and managing a production budget from scratch. But the way it works is that over time, any anyone who comes to our shows is basically a member and becomes part of our community, and I hope that if they like what we do, and they like us and they like the vibe, they’ll stick around. And so the idea is, over time, we create a pattern of cumulative growth, where eventually we have a very large membership base.

“Basically, we’re not talking about TV, Netflix, the Hulu scale, we’re talking about thousands of people. And the idea is that over time, that recurring revenue base allows us to run the theater on the back of that membership model alone. So yeah, it’s hard at first, then it gets better over time as we grow this community.

There are many conceivable benefits to running a theater this way. As the community grows, production values ​​improve, performers can be paid more, and the theater can support even more creative work. By crowdsourcing its funding, Super Secret Arts can spread the artistic risk across its membership base and likely present works deemed too daring for traditional theatrical environments, which might otherwise have to undergo lengthy development processes.

“We are creating an artistic environment where adventurous art has a chance to breathe, a safe place for everyone to express themselves however they wish and, perhaps more than anything else, a place that is caring,” said stressed Singer. . “We like to say that we are creating a theater company as if theater had just been invented. Part of this is creating a place that centers the artist, their well-being and supports their joy.

The theater industry tends to be set in its ways. And while there is value in tradition, an unwillingness to adapt can hinder progress, especially in a field where prejudice is entrenched. That’s why it’s important to integrate innovative measures into a company’s infrastructure right from the start. As Singer explains, “For theater, being an industry that’s been slow to adapt — I think that’s a pretty diplomatic way of putting it — it’s a pretty big departure from the way things are normally. One of the reasons we haven’t necessarily seen this elsewhere is that it’s hard to pivot an existing multi-million dollar budget into something that would likely seem very risky. So in some sense it would have to be an organization trying this from scratch, where we don’t have a lot of institutional history to hold us back.

One theater previously introduced a similar subscription model. When Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi became executive director of Seattle’s ACT Theater in 2008, he launched the ACTPass program, which helped the theater survive the recession. For $30, passholders could access most shows on the main stage and in development for free, as well as half-price tickets for friends, discounts and other perks. Scanduizzi also introduced a Pay What You Can (PWYC) policy for available Main Stage tickets on the afternoon of the show.

Although ACT Theater no longer offers the ACTPass and currently has no plans to resume the program, there are still ticket packages available for purchase and a PWYC option for Sunday night performances, subject to availability from 6 p.m.

For Singer, it’s not so much about competing for a place within the larger New York theater scene as it is about creating a space for her community.

“We’re really interested in being a theater for the hyperlocal part of Brooklyn that we live in,” Singer said. “That’s one of the things that I think a lot of theaters in New York get wrong. We’re not necessarily a theater for Manhattan. We’ll welcome people from Manhattan. But what I want to be is a theater for Gowanus I want to be a theater for Park Slope, and for Prospect Heights, and Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook, and Fort Greene, and Bed Stuy, and all the neighborhoods that are basically walkable or just a few train stops away. Because I think that part of Brooklyn is somewhat underrepresented in terms of theater infrastructure, and [community] start there.

The troop’s 4,000 square foot second floor loft features 10 skylights, exposed iron rafters, kitchenette, two bathrooms, full HVAC, folding chairs, stools, tables, benches church and other “interesting chairs”. Affectionately described as an “industrial attic church,” the venue offers views of downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. The space is not yet wheelchair accessible, but is undergoing the necessary renovations to make this possible.

Singer sees this as part of the community building process. Super Secret Arts even has longer-term expansion aspirations. Once the Brooklyn site is fully established, Singer says, he hopes to add another site in Astoria, Queens.

Hopefully, if the theater becomes Brooklyn’s worst-kept secret, Gowanus can be known as more than a Superfund site.

Alexandra Pierson (her) is deputy editor of American Theater. [email protected]

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