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Paper Tigers: How Padded Are Theater Seats?

Kyle T. Webster

Saturday night they’d almost always go to the theater. Eddy Tingley would get the seats at a cutrate agency he knew.

Kyle T. Webster

(Click to enlarge)

 

—John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel (1930)



I had never understood the
expression “papered house” when, 25 years ago, I began reviewing plays. I thought maybe the phrase meant that a theater lobby had wallpaper. The fine art of papering (strictly speaking, filling seats with free tickets and, more broadly, with discounted ones) had simply never come up at UCLA during my one semester of box-office management. Papering, though, has probably been around since The Clouds flopped on opening night and Aristophanes needed to fill his amphitheater’s benches with togas. And, of course, any Broadway aficionado has at some point stood in line at the Times Square TKTS booth to buy a reduced ticket. Back in 1983, there was only one agency filling seats in Los Angeles theater, but today, markdowns are a potent marketing tool.

“L.A. has more theater going on than it has audiences,” says Leigh Fortier, a theater producer who also owns Plays411, a company that both sells discounts and offers marketing services to producers. “The disadvantage is that L.A.’s theater is not a destination for tourists. Even Wicked has a rush for really great seats.”

In the 1980s, local papering was mostly confined to sending in a shuffling cavalry of retirees with complimentary reservations to boost a show’s attendance. Today, it is less common for theatergoers to be given “panic comps” than for them to either pay membership dues to a free-ticket agency or register with a pay-per-show discount service.

The prime motive behind a producer’s papering a show has always been to avoid a situation in which a critic reviews a play in a near-empty house on opening weekend. Comedies are regarded as especially vulnerable, and many producers believe that the comped laughter of their actors’ friends and family members will sweep a critic along into writing a favorable notice. For dramas, the requirement is simply to keep the critic from noticing all the empty seats and ruminating about the future of theater.

Still, funneling free tickets through a papering service can backfire on a producer because there’s less incentive for the recipients to show up than if the patron had paid half price. There’s also the problem of program shock, where discount-ticket buyers discover their play isn’t exactly what they’d imagined from its title. Years ago, I reviewed a two-character, rough-sex romance whose actors remained on a bed completely naked for most of the play. I was almost alone in my embarrassment for them. I was almost alone, period — the only other patron was a petite grandmother sitting several rows away. During intermission, she told me she’d taken the show through a papering service not knowing what it was about. Minutes later, she went home.

These days, thanks to the Internet, papering companies are able to provide review pull quotes or patron comments through their Web sites to clue potential theatergoers as to what they’re getting into.

Tracy Gore, who two years ago bought On the House, L.A.’s oldest papering company, says she seeks feedback from clients on the shows they’ve seen. That information is passed on to potential attendees.

“I never ask my members to fake it,” says Gore, who once worked publicity for Ringling Brothers. “I don’t edit their opinions.”


Founded 26 years ago, the rebranded On the House un-Ltd. is a membership-based company with ticket access to between 15 and 25 venues a week, some of which include film and dance events. Members pay $225 annually and are guaranteed at least two free tickets each week. Like other papering services, On the House advertises itself as a word-of-mouth generator to producers, who offer the company’s patrons tickets not only to shows during their regular runs but to previews and even dress rehearsals. Gore says theaters will contact her anywhere between two weeks before a show opens right up to “the last minute.”

Fortier dismisses as misguided the belief that only a play’s opening weekend performances or the nights that critics show up need to be papered.

“Week two,” says Fortier, “is when you see people fall straight to the ground — the excitement’s over and the press hasn’t come. L.A.’s pretty much a wait-and-see town, and by the second week, word hasn’t gotten out. The producers who don’t know what they are doing and didn’t market the play [then] react to an empty house by reaching out all over the place.”

One veteran publicist, who requested anonymity for this article, says that papered houses best serve comedies, and during previews.

“You need [actors] to play off an audience and find out where the jokes are,” he says.

Still, this publicist holds a dim view of papering, believing it is killing the full-price ticket and cheapening the theatergoing experience.

Jim McCarthy, who, with fellow e-commerce veterans Rich Webster and Robert Graff, began Pasadena-based Goldstar in 2002, has no patience for this view.

“I bet,” McCarthy responds, “the last time that person got on a plane, he didn’t fly full price — and yet didn’t feel cheapened.”


Goldstar, which offers discount tickets to live-entertainment events in 10 metropolitan areas, is an Internet-spawned new kid on the block. (McCarthy and his colleagues came from the Geocities Web-hosting service.) McCarthy says his company’s discounts bring people to live theater who otherwise might not be inclined to watch it. Goldstar claims 550,000 clients, who signed up for the service online, described their tastes, and now receive e-mails suggesting shows they might like that are usually discounted by 50 percent and upward. (Goldstar adds a fee ranging from $3.50 to $7 for each ticket.)

McCarthy claims Goldstar brings ethnically diverse audiences to theaters, and estimates that most of his customers are between 35 and 40 years old, 75 to 80 percent of them women.

David Elzer, whose Demand PR agency represents some of L.A.’s edgier small-theater productions, agrees that the papering and discount companies often bring non-theater audiences to theater.

“I find there’s a different world of people who use these sites,” he says. “They can’t afford full price, and this is a way to bring them in.”

But others claim that even if they could afford full-price tickets, many discount-ticket buyers won’t pay full price and wouldn’t see any theater if they weren’t getting it cut-rate. The new papering paradigm seems recklessly counterintuitive: That Los Angeles is mostly populated by non-theatergoers who nevertheless wait, licking their lips in the dark, for the release of half-price tickets to Troilus and Cressida or What the Butler Saw. The success of papering agencies, though, seems to validate that assumption.

On a Saturday night in Hollywood, I’m sitting in a well-regarded Theater Row venue to review the L.A. premiere of a play by a well-regarded writer. Besides being well-regarded itself, the theater company mounting this production is also known as one that does not use papering services. Not counting myself and another critic, there are five people in the audience. It is the show’s second night.

The play is about Hollywood and its temptations, which means it’s a serious story with jokes. The production is very good: The actors deliver their lines to the nearly empty house with an assured grace, as though the place were a packed amphitheater and each utterance had been greeted with laughter or applause. For two hours, I forget where I am and have no sense of who may or may not be filling the seats around me. As far as I’m concerned, this play was written solely for me, and the cast is performing it only for my benefit. The rest is paper.


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