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Mnemonic Theatre Productions artistic producer Caleb McMullen in the company’s rehearsal space in Vancouver, May 16, 2013. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
Mnemonic Theatre Productions artistic producer Caleb McMullen in the company’s rehearsal space in Vancouver, May 16, 2013. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

How a Twitter debate led to one theatre's money-back guarantee Add to ...

By intermission, you’ve had it. You sneak out of the theatre, hoping nobody will notice, or be insulted, or judge you. Yes, your seats will be conspicuously vacant come Act II, but by then you and your companion will be safely installed at the bar, recounting the agony from which you’ve escaped, or perhaps on to some other topic, the play you fled too forgettable to be analyzed.

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Caleb McMullen, artistic producer of Mnemonic Theatre Productions, thinks your exit should be less cloak and dagger, more statement. If you choose to leave his company’s upcoming production of David Auburn’s Proof in Vancouver, he wants to know – and he’ll refund the price of your ticket.

“If we’re a young, innovative, energetic theatre company that is trying to do the best work that we can, why wouldn’t we back our work with something like a money-back guarantee?”, says McMullen. “Are we going to be so afraid of people disliking our work that we will, in fact, lose money on it?”

The Globe and Mail had something to do with McMullen’s decision to offer a money-back guarantee. Early this year, McMullen, 25, attended a performance of Ride the Cyclone at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver. Overrated, he thought. Nonetheless, it received a standing ovation. This prompted a blog post he called “Canadian Theatre Can Do Better,” followed by another post, announcing that he planned to place inserts in programs instructing audiences on various states of applause and how they will be interpreted by the cast. A Twitter debate with Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck ensued, during which Nestruck called the program idea “Terrible. Naive. Insulting.” Nestruck then wrote about the issue in The Globe, in which he declared the standing ovation dead, hypothesizing that it was too ubiquitous to be meaningful. Nestruck suggested that if McMullen really wanted to know what his audiences were thinking, he could offer a money-back guarantee.

McMullen picked up the gauntlet.

“I thought to myself: Theatre is all about the stakes, and how high are those stakes when you’re on the edge of your seat because two actors are fighting for those stakes desperately? Why shouldn’t we apply that same mentality to the running of our business as a theatre company?”

So if you don’t like the production of Proof, which opens at The Cultch later this month, you can ask for a refund at intermission. You’ll get the $25 ticket price back, but not the service fee charged by The Cultch.

McMullen has crunched the numbers and he figures he really has nothing to lose. He expects more people to come to the show based on the guarantee and, believing in his product, he does not expect a rush of people demanding their money back. And at the end of the day, the co-op, with a budget of about $10,000, may even sell enough tickets to pay the actors, and possibly even McMullen himself (who stands to earn $200 to $500 for what he says amounts to countless hours of work).

“That being said,” adds McMullen, who works as a waiter to pay the bills, “if we do flop, if this show really, really sucks, then yeah, we do risk losing money in the process.”

Any potential financial loss, he says, is worth the benefit: getting an accurate and immediate judgment from the audience. “They will leave feeling like they weren’t cheated out of their money,” says McMullen. “Because guaranteed, if they wasted their money or felt like they did, they won’t be back to the theatre for a while.”

He recalls his own singular experience with the intermission dash – a production of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, where Juliet was a “cold fish” and Romeo had “the charisma of a snail.” The tickets had been given to him by a friend who couldn’t make it. Otherwise, McMullen says, he might not have left early. And if he’d stuck around, hating it, he probably would have felt bitter and resentful, rather than empowered.

It’s one thing for McMullen, a producer, to put his money where his mouth is. It’s another story for the director and especially the cast, who could return to the stage after intermission to a bunch of empty seats. Would that not feel like a crushing personal defeat?

“I was terrified,” says actor Minh Ly about his initial reaction to the idea. At rehearsal last week, he said he’s far less hesitant now. “Because I believe in our show, and ideally it’ll bring more people to the theatre.”

Director Raugi Yu says the issue doesn’t come up often at rehearsal, but it is in the back of his mind. “I don’t want to give people a reason to use it. And to be perfectly honest, if the money-back guarantee wasn’t here, I would like to think my quality of work would be the same,” he says.

The idea has been tried elsewhere – a 2004 experiment in Edinburgh that nobody at the theatre could remember when contacted recently; a 2009 production of El Grito del Bronx in Chicago. With its tough subject matter (domestic abuse, serial murder, AIDS), the show came with a money-back guarantee (underwritten by a foundation which wanted to encourage risky theatre). It generated some controversy – purists were uncomfortable with the commodification of the art – but also lots of discussion, and publicity. Theatre company Collaboraction executive artistic director Anthony Moseley, in retrospect, wishes they had used a different term – maybe “high risk/high reward,” which sounds more positive than “money-back guarantee” – but overall he says it was a very positive experience: Out of about 3,000 people who saw the show, 14 asked for their money back.

In Vancouver, the Arts Club Theatre Company has offered the odd money-back promotion, but not for a long time. It has, however, quietly refunded tickets for unsatisfied customers, on a case-by-case basis (but more frequently offers tickets to another production). And if you buy a subscription to The Cultch and don’t like the first show you see, you can get your money back for the subscription. The number of subscribers who have taken the theatre up on this: zero.

McMullen acknowledges his guarantee has the feel of a publicity stunt, but he believes this is an authentic, immediate – and courageous – way to gauge audience reaction. And he says that’s something theatre needs right now.

“There are many things in the theatre community and industry that need to be changed if we’re going to exist for another 100 years,” he says. “If we start taking risks like these, we’re going to have a lot of failures, but at least we’re not going to be in stasis; we’re not going to be paralyzed by the weight of our current situation within this industry.”

Proof is at The Cultch in Vancouver May 29-June 8 (opening May 30).

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