News Column

Artshare attempts all-you-can-attend theater subscription

July 21, 2014

By Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.



July 21--Will theatergoers sign up for an all-you-can-watch system along the lines of Netflix or Spotify? The members of the new Artshare are betting the answer is "Yes."

Artshare brings together 15 arts organizations who perform at Minneapolis' Southern Theater, including Arena Dances, Black Label Movement and Four Humors Theatre. For $18 a month, subscribers can attend performances, hundreds of them over the course of a year, as often as they want.

"I had the kernel of the idea in late 2009, literally Netflix for the performing arts, and it started as a citywide concept," said Damon Runnals, executive director of the Southern. "I did a brainstorm with a couple of colleagues in my living room.

We talked about how great it would be, then we started thinking about logistics and went home and decided it would never work because it was way too complicated."

Pared down from city-wide to Southern Theater-wide, though, Artshare became a more workable concept. The 15 member companies get free use of the theater during the dates blocked out for them, a split of the ticket revenue (they will still sell individual tickets at $28 per show) and a portion of the subscription fee. The goal is to sell 2,100 subscriptions, all payable via PayPal, beginning with a kick-off event 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis. (For more details, visit southerntheater.org.)

For the Southern, Artshare is an effort to reclaim its place as one of the Twin Cities' premiere art spaces after setbacks that culminated in 2011 with charges that its management had misused grant money.

"This puts the Southern in a position where we know what our cash flow is," Runnals said. "Given the lessons of the past at this organization, one thing I've tried to reflect in my tenure is a level of accountability and transparency."

Consistency is also the goal for the 15 companies, whose representatives see Artshare as a win-win.

"We're a small theater company so there's no way we would ever have been able to afford to rent the Southern," said Meagan Disciorio, artistic director of Swandive Theatre, which will do one main stage show a year. "The fact that we get it rent-free is gigantic. That's a huge portion of where our show budget goes."

In fact, Disciorio is finding it difficult to see a downside, other than having to raise individual ticket prices, since Swandive previously charged much less than $28 per seat.

"We tried really hard to find a catch," Disciorio said. "With free rental space at this gorgeous space, the opportunity for collaboration maybe with the other companies, the opportunity to have more money to pay our own artists and the cherry on the top of the (subscriber) stipend -- I mean, to actually get paid as a small theater company? We're lucky if we break even."

Mathew Janczewski's Arena Dances is a more established company, annually performing five different productions at four spaces, including the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. He said Artshare will give his company freedom.

"Cowles and the Southern are two such different animals. What I love about the Southern is I could possibly be a little more experimental and challenge my own process there."

Janczewski said getting locked into specific dates is tricky (his will be in early August, at the same time as the Minnesota Fringe Festival) and he needs to make sure not to double up on his existing donors, but he thinks he can make Artshare work.

"I like the idea of the artists getting a percentage of the Artshare memberships. To have that monthly check coming in is such a luxury," Janczewski said. "That's what I think is cool. The Southern is really putting the artist in front of it. It's always been the most artist-driven space in town and this continues that."

The hope is also that Artshare will encourage folks who have not been to the Southern to attend performances there, since going to a few performances a month for one's $18 would result in a low cost per ticket. In that regard, Artshare is like a few other arts initiatives in the Twin Cities: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra$5 memberships, which allow unlimited attendance in lower-cost seats, and "radical hospitality" at Mixed Blood Theatre, which offers tickets for an even lower cost: free.

Janczewski refers to the Artshare participants as "renegades" and everyone involved acknowledges that there's no guarantee the $18-a-month model will catch on.

"Will it be a raging success? I don't know. I hope so," Runnals said. "The truth is that I'm much more interested in creating stability than in bringing in tons of cash really fast. The program can give us a bedrock from which we can build for the future."

Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.

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(c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com

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Source: Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN)


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