The Kelly-Strayhorn's “Pay What Makes You Happy” Policy

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In recent years, a number of established performance troupes and venues around town have included a “pay-what-you-can” day in multi-day productions, a strategy targeting patrons who couldn’t ordinarily afford a ticket.

This year, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater has become the first Pittsburgh venue to institute this pricing policy for every performance of every show, all season long.

And so far, at least, it seems to be working.

Slowdanger perfroms this Friday at the Kelly-Strayhorn - PHOTO COURTESY OF CASSIE KAY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo courtesy of Cassie Kay Photography
  • Slowdanger perfroms this Friday at the Kelly-Strayhorn
Executive Director Janera Solomon said she instituted the policy after off-season in-house discussions about whether to raise ticket prices at the East Liberty venue, best known for its dance and performance art. But she says that the neighborhood’s recent redevelopment trend, which has been pushing out lower-income residents and shoppers in favor of condos and pricey restaurants, helped her decide to go a different direction. She means the new policy to say, “It’s not all about money.”

Actually, the theater had long hewn to an informal pay-what-you-can policy for patrons (and even groups of patrons) who said things were tight for them. There were also standard discounts for students, seniors, artists and residents of the 15206 ZIP code.

But this season, which launched with Sept. 25 and 26 performances by the visiting Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, pay-what-makes-you-happy became the official, announced approach to ticketing. Online ticket-buyers are offered a range of suggested prices starting at $5, or permitted to set their own fee.

Some theater staffers, says Solomon, objected that such a policy – which can effectively mean giving away tickets – communicated to audiences that the performances themselves weren’t worth much.

But Solomon says, “I feel pretty confident in our audience. … I think people who want to be here are happy to contribute at whatever level they can.”

After two productions – the Baker & Tarpaga shows and last week’s concert by African music star Vieux Farke Toure – things are looking good, she says. In fact, the average that patrons are paying for tickets has actually risen, from $8 last season to $10.50 under pay-what-makes-you-happy.

While most patrons so far have paid in the $10 range, and some offered just $1, Solomon says some visitors continue to pay the cost of a typical full-price ticket to the theater in years past, about $25.

“I want people coming to the theater as regularly as they might go grocery-shopping,” says Solomon.

She says a few patrons attended both Baker & Tarpaga shows: “I don’t think they would have done that if they had to buy another ticket or ask for one [for free].”

Because the Kelly-Strayhorn is a nonprofit enterprise, its ticketing policy isn’t a huge risk financially. Like most nonprofit arts groups, it gets a large percentage of its revenue from foundations and other donors. About 40 percent of the theater’s income is earned, and about half of that comes from ticket sales, says Solomon.

The theater’s season continues at 8 p.m. this Friday with a performance by local dance duo Slowdanger (Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight), who’ll showcase memory 4, a work in progress developed during their residency at Kelly-Strayhorn.

For more information on other upcoming shows, see here.

For her part, Solomon hopes the pay-what-makes-you-happy idea spreads. “I would like to see if this is something we can get the whole neighborhood behind,” she says, with restaurants and other establishments at least trying out the policy.

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