From the New York Times, at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/theater/01refund.html?_r=1&hpw
A Chicago Production Lures the Wary With a Money-Back Guarantee
By ERIK PIEPENBURG
Published: August 31, 2009
Are customers always right — even if they want their money back after seeing a play? That's the question that's stirring chatter in Chicago, where a production recently offered to refund the full cost of a ticket to any unsatisfied patron.
Considered a "risky" play because of its difficult subject matter, it was given a boost by a refund offer.
Refunds were offered during the run of Migdalia Cruz's grim play "El Grito del Bronx," a co-production of the small Chicago theater companies Collaboraction and Teatro Vista. The play (which was commissioned in 1996 by the Public Theater in New York but not produced there) is a dark drama about the relationship between a woman and her brother, a serial killer who is dying of AIDS in jail. The play has strong language and scenes of violence.
The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, a family foundation in Chicago, wanted to support companies producing shows that foundation officials said might be "particularly risky." So it offered Collaboraction up to $10,000 in refund money for the 20 performances of the play, which was performed at a 200-seat space in the Goodman Theater made available without charge. The play ran from July 15 through Aug. 9, including a week's extension, and the theater kept $300 on hand at each performance. (Ticket prices ranged from $15 to $30).
To get the refund, audience members were asked, but not required, to stay until the end of the show and to provide e-mail addresses and the reasons they were dissatisfied.
Jeffrey Gardner, Collaboraction's marketing coordinator, said that of the approximately 3,000 people who saw the production, only 14 asked for and received refunds, mostly at intermission, at a cost of $240. (The company will return the unused cash to the foundation.)
Anthony Moseley, the director of the show and the executive artistic director of Collaboraction, said that except for a woman who threw down her ticket stubs in disgust and some complaints about profanity, the reasons given were never explicit.
"I don't think anybody got more specific than they didn't like it, or they weren't satisfied," he said.
The program, devised as a way to attract new audiences and to create buzz for the production, caused debate in Chicago, especially in the blogosphere. Chris Jones, the theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, wrote in his blog (on Chicagotribune.com) that this idea should die "a quick death" because "art is not a light fixture."
Still, Mr. Moseley said that the play was better attended than many of the company's past productions, and many audience members he spoke to said the refund offer influenced their decision to attend.
Richard Cahan, a program officer at the Driehaus foundation, said several people he'd heard from were "aghast" at the idea of a money-back guarantee or what he called "the commodification of the theatergoing experience."
"There are people who believe that theater is about supporting art," he said. "It's not like a tomato that's spoiled, and you have to take it back to the store. On the other hand, it's not given away for free, so in that sense it is a commodity." But he added: "The recession has made it more difficult for theater organizations to take chances. One bad play can sink a theater."
The idea behind this experiment, he said, was to encourage theaters and theatergoers to take some of those chances.
Mr. Moseley, the director, said, "We have to look at ways to change the model because philanthropic giving is just not there, especially for small companies trying to make the work of tomorrow."
According to the Broadway League, the national trade association, there is no industry standard for exchanges or refunds for tickets on Broadway; decisions are made at the discretion of the management. Off Broadway theater companies in New York, including the Public, may offer refunds if an above-the-title star is out, or if a patron has to leave during a show because of illness — but "I didn't like it" is not going to get audience members their money back.
The producer Jeffrey Richards, who is bringing Tracy Letts's play "Superior Donuts" from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago to Broadway this fall, called the policy "interesting" but "not viable."
"I think a person takes risks when they go and see entertainment, whether it's a play or ballet or a movie or opera," he said. "You can send back something if it isn't cooked properly at a restaurant, but if you don't like something, and you've already digested it, you can't get your money back."
George Forbes, the president of the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers, agreed, saying that theaters were "not in the business of providing free trials." He suggested that a more sustainable model for foundations and theater companies could be found at the Signature Theater Company in New York, where, through an initiative from Time Warner, all tickets to the regular run of a show are just $20.
"There's no guarantee that you'll like the show, but there is a guarantee that the price is incredibly low," Mr. Forbes said.
A more sympathetic ear was lent by the producer Ken Davenport, who said he had given a "handful" of refunds in response to an e-mail promotion that offered money back on select tickets to "Altar Boyz" Off Broadway.
"We're one of the most competitive and cluttered markets for theater," he said. "You have to find a way to stand out. The consumer is weary of taking a risk, so anything I can do to reduce that risk is a benefit. I'm confident in my production in the first place."
Mr. Moseley, who has a background in finance, said he considered the refund policy a success, and one that his company would consider doing again in the future, with a few tweaks.
The refund idea isn't new. In 1993 the producers of the Broadway flop "Ain't Broadway Grand" took out a newspaper ad offering refunds at intermission to any patrons who didn't like the show enough to stay for the second act.
Suggesting that nothing in life is truly free, seven people were turned down, it was reported at the time, because they had bought discount tickets.