All Shows Are Now Free and Here’s Why

(I’m saving my typical, Malcolm Gladwell-esque, off-topic diversion for the end.)


I’ve decided to make all shows at the Chicago Improv Studio free.  “All” is a bit of a weasel word since I only run shows one night a week. And free isn’t entirely true either since the hat will be past after the show to collect tips. Maybe this isn’t free but pay as you are able. Here’s what brought me to this decision:


(Massive disclaimer: My situation is unique to Chicago and to my business. You may find no parallels between this and your theater.)


1) The venue and I wanted to simplify and streamline production. Free means no box office staff, no merchant services, no accounting paperwork. Fewer things to get sick, crash or get lost. And if things do go wrong there’s no question as to who screwed it up!


2) For the last several years I’ve been toying with this proposition: “regular people” don’t go to improv shows. “Regular people” go to Second City, iO and ComedySportz. Before you say that is an incorrect statement, know that I know it is. But what if it is correct? Or at least correct enough.


2-1) It would mean that the fight to bring in “regular people”, with a million other comedy options, not to mention life distractions, goes away. No more explaining how improv works, compromising shows with gimmicks to make them easy sells, and no more frustration (and failure) about hunting for some advertising golden goose that will finally get “regular people” in the door.


2-2) What is left is an audience of “improvisers” (players, students and dedicated improv fans). This group of people actively seek out shows and are easy to reach through cheap and readily available advertising channels.


2-3) The perceived value of bringing in “regular people” is that they’re willing to spend money. Sadly, they just don’t want to come. “Improvisers” are very willing to see shows, every night of the week in fact, but it gets expensive; they don’t always have the money or inclination to pay. Many people assume that a “regular person” sees a show advertised as free and takes it to mean poor quality. This assumption makes producers want to raise prices. The problem is that raising prices caters to a group that doesn’t really want to be there regardless of price while alienating the price-sensitive people that want to be there.


3) Fiscally (again, your mileage may vary), things are such that I’m not hemorrhaging money by doing this. The venue and I have a good working relationship and are upfront and honest about expectations. While no money will be collected at the door, I will be upfront and honest with the audience about paying after the show. It may be called suggested donations, tips, or beer money but there will be a clearly marked bucket for people to pitch in to. No shame or arm twisting. What ever you can pitch in is great. If you can’t swing it this week just promise to come back. Again, this isn’t free but pay as you are able.


4) I want to remove worries about money from both the improv and, as much as possible, from my thoughts about my business. The shows are no longer to be thought of as a revenue stream but an expense. I’ve made peace with that and it’s the new normal. It greatly simplifies things.


(For a good discussion on the power of ***FREE*** try reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely)


How Godzilla Destroyed Detroit:


Muda, Mura, and Muri. These are the three Japanese words that Toyota, Honda and other Japanese auto builders lived by in the 70’s and 80’s during the quest (and victory?)  to dethrone Detroit as the capital of car production. I’ll define them quickly and efficiently:


Muda: Uselessness and wastefulness

Mura: Unevenness and irregularity

Muri: Unreasonable and beyond one’s power


These three things stand in the way of efficiency. They must be searched for and eliminated. (In all honest I didn’t have these in mind when I decided to make shows free but in reflection my decisions fit rather well.) Box office staff, being payed to sell just a handful of tickets, is an example of Muda. Trying to get people with no interest in improv into a show is total Muri. Tiered pricing, awkward venue arrangements and trying to serve both an artistic and a fiscal master is Mura.


See you Thursday!