Katerina Pushkin, 19 January 2016


Called by Katerina Pushkin. Participants included: Tina Hofman, Katie Jackson,

Sarah-Jane Watkinson, Steve Lawson, Tom Mansfield, Anthony Lee, Lu Kemp(?),

Madeleine O’ Reilly(?), Daniel Bye, Alison Neighbour, Mike Kaloski –Naylor, Emma

Cameron, Kirstin Shirling, Ruby Glaskin, Vanessa Oaks(?), Jim Henelly(?), Hannah

Ashwell, Karen Kidman, Jenny Smith

I called the session because I wanted to know more about Pay What You Can / Feel

pricing policies, their effectiveness and their current use in the UK: especially in the

North/North-East, where the idea’s gaining momentum at the moment.

The session lasted 2hrs 10 mins, so I've split the report into chapters:








There’s debate around the best words to use: Pay What You Can (PWYC) implies the

spending power of the audience member is the key factor, Pay What You Feel

(PWYF) could imply your decision is based entirely on how much you liked or didn’t

like the play, Pay What You Decide (PWYD) allows the audience member to decide

what parameters they judge it on. Other versions include Pay What You Think It’s

Worth and Entrance By Donation. The Northern experimenters, many of whom are

members of Venues North, have discussed this and many believe ‘decide’ is the most

useful word. They all also seem to ask people to decide after the performance,

although that wasn’t the only model discussed.

Other innovative, accessible pricing models raised included:

• Dynamic pricing (like for flights, where it gets more expensive closer to the day and

the software reacts to demand)

• Non-software dynamic pricing: The Drayton Arms uses early bird prices and

last-minute 2 for 1 offers

• Combined model (dynamic+PWYD): Fixed price in advance to guarantee a seat,

PWYD available on the day

• Income-based models including asking people to pay 10% of what they earn in a day

(Buzzcut have used this) or to pay what they earn per hour

• Foodbanking theatre: offer people buying tickets the chance to buy a ticket for a local

child, or a homeless person, or another person who couldn’t otherwise come to see

the show

• Festival version: PWYC, profit share between all artists, biggest name/s also get a


• Bartering for skills: like PWYC cafes, people can exchange volunteering for tickets

(would require massive organisational shift but is a concrete way of reaching new


• Offering any two tickets for £1 in a season, which brings new people in who then buy

standard tickets for other shows: The Albany did this and had 10% uplift (big risk for

venue, but less so if you have big loyal existing audiences)

Other examples of interesting ways of getting money out of audiences:

o People pay more for programs when donation is free

o Donation cookies: people give an unspecified donation in return for a cookie

o Question of the day: silly questions, people pay 20p to answer yes or no

o Fun donation games: parents with bored children are a captive audience and small

coins add up fast


People told us about two key venues which are doing this on a large scale, and kept

coming up in the discussion. This info didn’t come direct from venue staff and taking

notes is challenging, so there might be the odd inaccuracy! Please feel free to correct

them in the comments…

SLUNG LOW: A company in Leeds who are an NPO for their site-specific productions

and have two funded full-time staff. They’ve opened a small venue, The HUB (Holbeck

Underground Ballroom, in five railway arches) which they run on a completely PWYD

basis. They give 100% of box office receipts to the artists, because their own costs are

covered within their NPO funding. They have simple accommodation onsite, which

companies stay in for free. They think openly and generously about what being an

NPO means: “So we’ve got this van and we think anyone should be able to use it

because we’re an NPO”: they let smaller theatre companies borrow their van. They’re

so generous about their time. They have 60 chairs but we’re not sure of their exact

capacity. There’s a big jar on the bar for money when you leave.

Link: Slung Low's website

THE ARC, STOCKTON: An arts centre with a big music venue space, a theatre

seating 250ish, a small studio theatre, a cinema and a gallery, serving a small town in

the North East. Their cinema (which mixes arthouse/indie films and mainstream period

dramas, etc) subsidises the theatre programme.

A year or so ago they made their whole studio programme PWYD for 6 months. They

saw a 30-40% increase in audiences. The Studio Theatre has 80-100 seats ish: before

the PWYD experiment it was averaging sales in the low 20s for 1-2 night stands, with

PWYD that went up to low 30s. Their yield per ticket also went up from £3ish to £5ish:

previously their average price was £5ish and they gave out comps to staff, to

‘hard-to-reach’ audiences, to VIPs, etc. Now all those comps pay a bit (and

presumably some of them pay a bigger bit). It was so successful they extended the

programme for another 6 months or a year. They pay artists a fee, whatever the

show’s fee is.

ARC’s Chief Exec. Annabel Turpin says PWYD takes the risk out of going to the

theatre for audiences who have no idea what to expect. She contributed to our D&D

discussion via Twitter, saying PWYD has “been a huge success, we'll be publishing

the full year's data shortly”

Link: The ARC's website


Hat Fair in Winchester, which was conceived as a busking festival but also programs

non-hatting work, makes loads of money using these traditional PWYD techniques,

people give £20 notes

Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield have a PWYD programme in their studio

(The Cellar?)

Birmingham REP’s Bold Text Playwriting group (which puts on new writing nights in

The REP’s smallest studio space, The Door) has done it 9 times now, and they’re

always pleasantly surprised. You always get lots of tenners / twenties, and audience

retention is good, they keep coming back and tickets always go. But there are always

20-25 people who’ve booked who don’t turn up. They make £100-200 per show.

Leicester Check-In Festival uses PWYC, which is then profit shared between all the

artists, with the biggest name/s also getting a fee (Aurora Nova used to do that).


It’s all very well offering affordable tickets, but how can you decide what’s affordable

for audiences? Is £10 expensive or cheap? It depends on your income, and also on

your expectations, compared to what you usually spend your money on (eg. opera,

cinema, food). If you charge £20 for a ticket, you’re saying “I am happy to take

someone’s monthly spend on entertainment, so the only show they see this month is


Many theatre-makers can’t even afford to go to the theatre, so it’s cloud cuckoo land to

expect non-fans to pay substantial ticket prices when they don’t know what to expect.

Unquestionably PWYD can bring new audiences in, but the reality is that some of

those new audiences aren’t gonna pay much at all.

CBC (Creative Black Country?): some of their audiences are desperately poor, the bus

fare to Birmingham is more than they can afford

So theatres aren’t ever gonna get £20 out of them, but they might sell more tickets and

get more people in – they might get someone through the door for the first time. And

many of these places are PUBLICLY FUNDED TO DO JUST THAT!

Are National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) fulfilling their obligations to their funders if

they don’t get sufficient numbers of new / ‘harder to reach’ / poorer audiences in??

Risks are much greater for venues with only a small amount of subsidy, they’d need to

share the risk

PWYD can make it easier for programmers to take risks on work which might be shit.

PWYD is democratising: it means anyone can go to the theatre, which will eventually

mean their voices are represented in theatre.

PWYD gives artists instant feedback on the show: it’s there in a glass jar. However,

there’s a risk you start listening to the opinions of the better off because they pay


PWYD involves second guessing the economics of the people in the room: poor

people might pay 50p while an ostentatious arsehole might chuck in a £50 note, even

if he didn’t like it that much.

Do you know what? I can cope with a few more arseholes!

PWYD spreads income across whole output

It improves retention, because after you’ve been once the risk is slightly diminished: it

gets people over that threshold for the first time.

There will be surprising challenges and problems to solve, but we’re at an incredibly

exciting moment: we have an amazing opportunity to discover new ways of building



People equate prices with other commodities: one option is to remind them of this (eg.

do you want to pay the same as a cinema ticket, a pint of beer, a football ticket, etc)

Non-theatre audiences don’t know how much it costs to put on a play.

You could put the cost of doing the show on a donation bucket and let them do the


Crowdfunding works because it’s a fun mechanism: is PWYD part of the fun of the


Yes, that moment of weighing it all up is interesting and challenging

Can we make fairground machines to take the money? To make it even more fun…

What people decide to pay is based on a complex matrix between the perceived value

of the show and people’s ability to pay

Does everyone need to see how much other people are putting in, or can we navigate

ways around that?

How can PWYD work for emerging companies balancing an under 15K grants for the

arts budget? How can you sell such a risky model to the arts council when you don’t

have an independent contingency? And should you?

What about performer fees? How can it work with union rates? Is this just a way of

venues ripping off companies?

Well, it’s no different from a box office split in terms of risk, or even a guarantee vs a

split: you need to show how you can mitigate risk in the same way. For instance, if you

wanted to perform at Slung Low’s venue, you could ask them for rehearsal space to

help mitigate the risk. You could swallow it into your contingency. Slung Low give

artists 100% of the box office, and The ARC pays the performer a fee, whatever their

fee is for that show.

There’s an additional risk of people not turning up because they haven’t paid for their

ticket. People who work in theatres might have done this themselves when they’ve got

a comp. Can you take it or leave it on the day if you haven’t paid? At Slung Low they

have a waiting list and ask people to let them know so they can fill unused seats. The

Young Vic’s funded tickets for young directors threaten to charge you the full price if

you don’t turn up after booking! A Pay What You Think Festival in the US uses black

marks: if you keep not turning up, you forfeit your right to book tickets.

It’s not just an economic transaction, you’ve gotta talk to your audiences about it.

Don’t do it by stinging them on their secondary spend: ie. don’t do PWYD and then

make drinks, snacks, programmes expensive

Make it known if work isn’t subsidised (audience will take that into account when

deciding): when A Tres Bandes went to Slung Low’s HUB, the venue told the audience

it was totally self-funded and a full house dug deep

Sometimes people pay £10 each, often £5

Slung Low haven’t yet found a way of predicting how much people will pay: it’s random

and unpredictable. Eg. A Tres Bandes did 2 shows at The HUB, one full and one half

full: they took exactly the same amount for each show, to the penny!

No-one is ever turned away through lack of funds (this changes the whole atmosphere

of a place)

In house contexts, PWYD actually gets round licensing laws because it’s donations

It’s very difficult to measure how many people don’t pay anything at all…

Competition between venues is an issue: one producer spoke of local venues

undercutting hers, and that she may lose audiences if they started doing PWYD.

Exclusion clauses can solve this for individual shows.

Who shakes the bucket? The artist, the usher or no-one? At ARC it’s never the artist,

at The HUB it’s a jar on the bar. If it’s the artist you might make more that day, but

audience members might be less likely to come back. How about a big glass box with

the suggested donation on it?

PWYD requires audiences to carry cash, isn’t that an issue?

- Well, I’ve had people say “I’ve got no cash but I’ll buy you a pint on my card”

- You can get portable tech for swiping cards now, like burger vans / market stalls

- There are lots of ways of enabling card transactions as well as dropping cash in a

bucket / jar


All these things are about giving audiences agency over their relationship with makers.

But first-time theatregoers might expect PWYD every time they return if that’s their first

experience: it has to be an embedded, long-term policy

You can’t make moral claims on your audience. There will be people who don’t pay

and there will be people who identify as benefactors of the arts and pay loads.

They can see you’re not spending it on hookers and coke.

It must be a community space: they will donate to their community. Give and take.

Triangle of key relationships between Performers, Audience, and Money: it’s important

to have a deliberate and public policy for everything.

Economic models: the relationship between work and money. If you have a different

outlook, people dig deep because they support the outlook, as well as the work.

Instinctively the audience respond to the thing they’ve just seen, rather than the venue

and its future

How do people perceive the value of a piece of work if it’s PWYD? Do we risk

devaluing theatre as a whole?

It’s important to communicate that PWYD isn’t being used because it reflects the value

of that piece

Who has paid for Wikipedia in this group, ever? And how often do you use it? – Yes,

but that lacks human contact, and it isn’t local or community related, and they didn’t

start asking you to pay until long after you started using it.

But I’ve donated to stuff with crowdfunding that I’m not connected to: “I’m never gonna

have anything to do with that but it’s in my home town”.

When you put music out on the internet, it’s a common tactic to let people discover

and encounter work for free: and then eventually they pay £40 for one album, because

they’re grateful for all the good music so far and they’re happy to make a long-term

investment in you because they like your music.

So an important question is “what is my long-term investment in this company?” (Will

Memberships and Friends schemes overtake show tickets as audiences’ primary

investment in the theatre they like?)

Increasing numbers of young people are really into Twitch, which lets you watch other

people playing computer games for free: they’ll invest a lot of money in subscribing to

their favourite players, for no major benefit except knowing that they’ve contributed to

what the player’s doing: they just want to give them money. There was an interesting

article recently (link here) about what the arts can learn from this very surprising

platform and payment system.

When we use PWYD we need to be wary of using epic levels of passive aggression in

managing relationships with audiences: for example, a push towards manipulative,

emotive language to persuade people to give more. Either don’t push for it, and

genuinely let them decide: or be VERY open about the fact that you’re pushing for it.

It’s not about people’s perceptions of quality, it’s about their perceptions of risk

PWYD can help you challenge people’s expectations and battle their preconceptions:

eg, someone from a venue in the South East, about an hour from London, said local

people are often happy to pay £200 to go to a show in London, but they assume the

quality’s low locally so won’t pay – or go. If you take the risk out of going to local

theatre for them, they’ll turn up and can reconfigure their perceptions of the work’s


Hannah Nicklin did PWYD performances in Leicester pub/s(?), and guided the

audiences’ decisions by effectively publishing the production’s accounts: it cost this, to

happen again it needs to average £4.81 per person or whatever.

Street Arts and Hatting have developed scientific techniques, trailing all the way

through a performance how much it costs to make it, the amount of training and work

that’s gone into it: then building momentum up to their final trick, saying things like “I’m

accepting £20 today” (Not sure I noted this very well: if any street arts specialists want

to add detail in the comments that’d be great!)


Slung Low position The HUB as a community theatre venue, and The ARC Stockton is

a very different beast from big regional theatres…

It just requires a culture shift on the part of a big venue. It takes away all your

predictive models. It needs to be trialled, and the risk needs to be underwritten


It hasn’t happened yet at a big venue: but it will, because they’re all struggling.

Artists can’t ask venues to do it just for their show if they don’t already do it, so it’s

going to be up to the venues to take those leaps of faith. The best time for artists to

suggest it to venues is when they say “we’re struggling a bit, your show’s not really

selling: have you got any other marketing materials or ideas?”.

The big regional theatres are publicly subsidised so they have a responsibility to make

theatre for all, not just for the rich. If they make a shit-tonne of money (!) on their

Christmas show, they should use that to underwrite the risk of initiatives like this

(which current evidence, although not substantial enough, still implies could increase,

not decrease, revenues…).

ARC was able to trial PWYD because the risk would be minimal: because The Studio

wasn’t making money beforehand. Does that mean lots of big venues could do it in

their studios? After all, the point of studios is to take risks, to program loss-making

work. Lots of bigger venues might increase both attendance and yields by making their

studios PWYD, like ARC has, while keeping the security of the main house ticket


Wouldn’t it be great if the whole programme in The Door was PWYD?

If subsidies are reduced even further in the future, so studios have to start making

money too, it will no longer be possible to use them to trial PWYD and other pricing

models: so do it now! Take the chance to find out whether they’ll increase your income

stream while you can! Eg. USA relies on private funding for the arts, and tickets there

are astronomically expensive

Could PWYD ever work in a large theatre’s main house? Yes, if they weren’t going to

make money otherwise: so obviously, if Birmingham REP had done it for The Lion,

The Witch and The Wardrobe they’d have lost lots of money (this year’s Christmas

show was the biggest selling show in the theatre’s history, selling 62,000 tickets and

running at 93% capacity). But if it’s a risky show, or the mainhouse isn’t selling, or

certain kinds of theatre / audiences aren’t selling, then they could increase their

income by implementing PWYD.

PWYD can be used in main houses to support performances that sell less well, or that

you need to sell (eg. PWYD Tuesdays at Arcola, or PWYD press nights), without

compromising the performances which will sell well anyway.

Big regional theatres are very often half empty, with many tickets sensationally

expensive: so you get the middle of the theatre empty, which is bad for the actors and

bad for the audience’s experience of the play.

Big regional theatres could solve this by using the combined model, where audience

members can pay £20 or whatever for a guaranteed seat, or wait to buy via PWYD on

the day (a bit like standby / standing tickets at The Royal Court, NT, RSC, but PWYD).

Eg. Derby Theatre does Pay What You Think after 6pm on the day of the

performance. It's like supermarkets reducing goods' prices on their sell-by-date (might

you hit problems with advertising rules, RRP etc?).

Foodbanking theatre: offer people buying tickets the chance to buy another ticket for a

local child, or a homeless person, or someone else who couldn’t see the show

otherwise: they’ve done this at Belgrade Coventry’s panto and Slung Low’s children’s

show (I think Slung Low had specific free shows which they asked people to donate

tickets for but the notes aren’t 100% clear). This is much less risky for venues of

course, and swaps the focus of the audience member’s charity from giving to the

venue or the artist, to giving to another audience member. Share the love, share the

experience. Most viable for child/youth tickets because people are more likely to


The cost of failure could be immense for any venue using innovative, open pricing

models: but there’s also a big difference between the perception of risk in the eyes of

venues who’ve been using the same system for a long time, and the actual risk and

potential benefits (for the venue, not just the audiences).


Pricing, Inclusion, inclusion, new audiences, pay what you can, tickets, models, Pay

What You Can, Pay What You Decide, Venues North, Producing, producing, pricing