The recent news from Mixed Blood cheers me, so I want to acknowledge it today. To wit: the venerable Minneapolis company, known for adventurous programming under its founder since 1976 (yes, that’s right), announced this past week that at least for the 2011/12 season, it will not charge admission.
Here’s how Mixed Blood describes this bold move:
What is Radical Hospitality?
Radical Hospitality provides no-cost access to all mainstage productions for all audience members beginning with the 2011–12 season. An expansion of Mixed Blood’s egalitarian mission, Radical Hospitality erases economic barriers in pursuit of building a truly inclusive, global audience. Whether a patron is a long-time Mixed Blood attendee, a new immigrant living in Mixed Blood’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a person with low income or disabilities, a college student, or someone who has never been to theater, he or she will be welcomed, free of charge—with radical hospitality.
Why is Mixed Blood doing it?
Revolutionizing access is a core part of Mixed Blood’s vision. In pursuit of that goal, Radical Hospitality aims to: 1) Build relationships with those who have been traditionally underserved by the arts; 2) Eliminate real or perceived barriers to participation; and 3) Increase the number of Minnesotans participating in the arts.
For me, what’s phenomenal about this decision is that solves a major problem by transcending the question. The issue, of course, is how to sustain an art form like theater, which is both culturally marginalized and incredibly expensive to produce. Now Mixed Blood has come up with the most interesting answer I’ve ever heard, which is to not expect theater to pay for itself. It has to be supported in ways that create no financial barriers — ways that people are welcome in the theater not just for their money or their demographics, but because something about that theater’s offerings interest them.
First question, naturally enough, is how is this possible. Here’s what MBT has to say:
By revolutionizing access, Mixed Blood believes audiences will grow to be truly inclusive and reflective of the entire community. With that growth, Mixed Blood believes that audiences and supporters will embrace the egalitarian core value of the company, providing support in return. Simply put, instead of charging for tickets, audiences will be asked, subsequent to attendance, to voluntarily become supporters of a vision that ensures access for all. Funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund will support the launch of Radical Hospitality in 2011-12, with individual, corporate and philanthropic sponsorships sustaining no-cost admission beyond next season.
It’s been a bit disturbing, this past week, to see how angry Mixed Blood’s generosity of spirit has made certain people. And I mean certain theater folk—insiders whose reactionary statements have startled me. Some think that “free” will be interpreted by public as “without value.” But you have to wonder: if someone’s world view is that culture improves the more you pay for it, isn’t that exactly the kind of patron you’re better off without? Now that you don’t depend on them to pony up, over and over again?
An aside here. Years ago, while working for a regional theater, I was working yet another late night in the office when I realized someone else was toiling away in a nearby cubicle. To my surprise, it was a prominent board member, performing some sort of clerical task. “M___,” I said, “what are you doing here so late?”
She didn’t even look up as she snapped at me. “I’m here getting out gala invitations so that you people can have jobs,” she said, nasty as a badger.
I was so shocked that I couldn't formulate anything to say. Did she really think that’s what her donations of money, time and contacts were supposed to achieve? Was there no sense of joy in helping to sustain an ancient art form or at least a community institution? Finally I moved away from that board member’s work area without saying anything—a move that inadvertently spoke for itself, I guess, because she never looked me in the eye again. After all, I had seen her for what she really was.
So yeah. I’m all for an approach to theater-making that doesn’t look at the art form and its practitioners as infantilized beggars.
Okay. To a degree, I understand the naysayers’ concerns. There are other arguments that hold a little more water for me. What if there’s a dry patch with the funding, for one. And there are similar detractions. There will always be similar detractions, so what. I for one am excited to see what happens, to see how Minneapolis and other cities respond to Radical Hospitality. Smaller theaters have embraced this ethic before, but never before (to my knowledge) one of Mixed Blood’s size.
There will still be work to be done — I doubt patrons will flood Mixed Blood’s gates just because the plays are free, so there will still be two tons of outreach necessary to attract audiences — but the simple notion that all people are welcome is inherently radical. And you can bet that next time I’m in Minneapolis, Mixed Blood will be at the top of my theatergoing itinerary. I want to be among the number who are genuinely wanted in that building.