If The Show's Not Ready For Critics, Should Tickets Be Cheaper?

When I was a kid growing up outside Boston, I would make it a point to see "preview" performances of Broadway-bound shows, in part because the tickets were cheaper.

And it made sense, too, for both me and the show's producers. After all, these performances were when the shows were still being worked on — sometimes dramatically so — with lines being added or cut, songs being adjusted and most importantly with the performers learning to connect with the work, each other and the audience.

After a few days or a week at most, critics like Elliot Norton, Kevin Kelly and Carolyn Clay were invited in, signaling the official opening of the show.

Previews helped producers, too, because these early performances were not the easiest tickets to sell because many folks wait until the reviews come out before they decide whether to see a show.

But the practice of offering lower-cost tickets for preview or pre-review performances isn't so common any more, not only for commercial shows but those produced at not-for-profit theaters.

Goodspeed Opera House, for example, has even jettisoned the word "previews," simply calling all shows "performances," and this can be confusing when folks want to know when a show officially "opens" (traditionally when the critics are invited in after a show is deemed "ready").

As for ticket prices, Goodspeed charges the same amount for their pre-critics shows as their post-critics shows. Goodspeed among all Connecticut theaters also has the longest stretch of shows before the critics are invited: 2 1/2 weeks for their revivals, and 3 1/2 weeks for a (relatively) new show like "Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn."

But some theaters still offer easy-to-understand preview/regular performance differences. Tickets for previews are $20 less at the Westport Country Playhouse and Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. And Yale Rep offers $20 tickets for some of its previews — and they're immensely popular.

But the trend in the industry is to do more strategic and "fluid" discounting, offering preview deals to subscribers, to a certain age group, or special deals for a particular show on particular days through flyers, postcards, prints ads, email and social media.

But if you don't specifically ask for the discount at the box office or you are not aware of the special "code," you might miss out. These days, if you're not "connected" and pro-active you may be paying considerably more dough than the person sitting next to you at that performance of "Hamlet" at Hartford Stage this fall.

Looking for a non-theater world comparison? A reader, MP Guinan from Hartford who follows me on Twitter and Facebook, said there's a common expectation that those attending a spring training baseball game would pay less for their tickets compared to regular season game at Yankee Stadium. They'd be a great outcry if there wasn't.

But theatergoers — many who don't know the difference between "previews" and "regular performances" — seem less aware of the changing pricing order — or perhaps just don't care.

Said one marketing director why the theaters charge the same for a first performance as it does for a post-critics show: "Because we can."

That may be good for the bottom line but not if you're trying to build an audience and attract younger folks.

Perhaps a way to help theaters that need income to survive but more, importantly, to develop audiences, is a simple subsidy provided by a corporation, foundation, government agency or generous individual.

Call the campaign "Be the First" and it could make the dramatic gesture — we are talking about the theater, after all — of offering all previews at $10 bucks — including the best seats. Then promote the hell out of it and see what happens

The funder could choose a theater as a pilot program and if the numbers soar, then the theater could potentially have a new generation of theatergoers — as well as some extra cash for those harder-to-sell seats.

And those subsidizing the effort can get much good will — and maybe more. (I have a soft spot — and a credit card — for American Express because of their high-profile campaigns in support of theater.)

Best of all, these new and young theatergoers can indeed be the first to see something potentially wonderful. After all, that's why I really went to see those previews in Boston.