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Free Night Or Free Nights?

October 16, 2008

Today is a special day for the U.S. non-profit theatre world: It's the 4th annual Free Night of Theatre. Organized by the Theatre Communications Group, the Free Night aims to attract new audiences to the theatre by offering no-cost tickets to a wide range of performing arts events in many different cities across the country.

San Francisco (alongside Austin and Philadelphia) piloted the event in 2005. Since then, at least if the propaganda is to be believed, the Free Night has grown exponentially. On the first Free Night, held on Thursday, October 20, 2005, more than 150 theatre companies ushered close to 8,000 theatre-goers through their doors to see more than 120 performances.

In 2006, Free Night expanded to include an additional 13 communities such as Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, DC. On October 19, the 2006 campaign offered 35,627 free tickets to 522 performances presented by 387 participating theatre companies from coast to coast.

Last year, the program was expanded to previously unrepresented parts of the Midwest and southeastern states. TCG presented Free Night 2007 in more than 70 cities. The event gave away more than 30,000 tickets to 600 performances that were presented by 398 theatres nationwide.

This is all very commendable, but I'm puzzled by one thing: the Free Night doesn't seem to be a one-night stand anymore; theatre-goers can now get free tickets to see shows over several weeks. In the Bay Area, for instance, free tickets can be used to see events from October 3 to November 7.

While the generosity is admirable, I'm wondering if it might dilute the punch of the campaign? There's little point in declaring October 16 2008 a Free Night of Theatre if every night between October 3 and November 7 is equally free. From a marketing perspective, I wonder if extending the dates in this way is a good idea? If people know they only have one night to see shows for free, they might jump into action more readily than if they're able to say, "well, I can go anytime over the next few weeks, so I'll just wait and see how my schedule pans out before organizing a trip to the theatre."

And how does offering free tickets on multiple evenings affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved? It's not like any of these organizations are rolling in money.

I'm also curious to find out whether handing out free tickets over the past few years is really helping to build new audiences or whether people are just taking advantage of the free offer and coming to see plays just once rather than repeating the experience at other times during the year. I've contacted Theatre Bay Area's executive director, Brad Erickson, to find out if his organization has any information about the audience-building acumen of the Free Night program. When I hear back from Brad, I'll post his thoughts here so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you're in the U.S. and happen to get out to see any shows as part of Free Night either tonight or at any other point during the "run", feel free to drop me a line to let me know what you saw and whether the free ticket program will keep you coming back for more.

This news in from Brad at TBA in regards to the rationale behind expanding Free Night beyond a single date:

"The whole month aspect is one of our local innovations as implemented this fourth year of Free Night in the Bay Area. Nationally, Oct 16 (the third Thursday) remains the focal point for the campaign. We found that focusing on one night didn’t help us communicate the real scope of the initiative, with performances laid out over several weeks. But one of the fascinating aspects of Free Night nationwide is how individual communities are free to tailor-make the campaign to work best in their own regions. So there are now dozens of different ways to implement the initiative. All of which we will be studying and reporting on at the TCG conference in Baltimore next June."

Brad is deferring to a colleague of his, Clayton Lord, to get back to me about audience-building facts. I'll post again when I hear from Clay...

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