Haas said he had long thought about how to make theater affordable for actors and theater professionals, and when conversations with Wilma leaders turned to this idea, he embraced it. "My whole thing is, how do we include as many people as possible? We've got this amazing theater scene here. I think back to the days when we had three great restaurants and two great theaters, and it's just exploded."
Currently, the average ticket price for Wilma shows is between $31 and $35, says managing director James Haskins. But houses are running at about 70 percent of paid capacity. The thinking is that while the theater will reap a lower per-ticket price, more tickets will be sold. The goal is to fill houses to 90 percent, with total earned ticket income therefore expected to remain at current levels. The Wilma's earned income accounts for 45 percent of its budget; 55 percent comes from philanthropy.
From a financial perspective, ticket income staying even combined with the Wyncote subsidy would represent a net gain. Filled seats pay other dividends. Spirits on stage are buoyed by larger audiences, and the impressions of audience members are more positive in a full house. "We do believe that the energy of a full house provides a richer experience for all, and have established a 90 percent paid capacity goal to achieve just that," said Haskins.
But the new program speaks to broader institutional ambitions. "We want our audience to reflect the work we put on stage and the local community of Philadelphia," he said. "We are looking to diversify our audience in terms of ethnicity, in terms of age . . . and we think that a more egalitarian price structure will be able to do that."
The Wilma looked at affordable ticket programs at theaters in London, Boston, Brooklyn, and Minneapolis, and ended up fashioning its $25 ticket initiative after a similar one at Signature Theatre Company in New York, which began a subsidized ticket program in 2005 and has committed to continuing it through 2022.
"After extensive research and discovering a synergy between our objectives and Leonard's interests, we landed on the Signature model as our primary inspiration," Haskin said.
The Wilma's may be the first local foray into the concept. Amy Murphy, managing director of the Arden Theatre Company and a Theatre Philadelphia board member, said she knew of no other local troupe offering a low flat price. She said: "It is potentially a new take on the subscription model - encouraging folks to come to the theater more often by removing cost barriers."
Haas said he would like to see the program gather steam and extend beyond its initial three years. "That's the next conversation," he said. "It's great to be the one person starting something, however I've always been a big fan of having these groups not rely on one benefactor.
"The hope is by the end of three years we've got something figured out to keep it going forward."