Why Free? Why Shakespeare? Why in the Park?

Plenary Session: Why Free? Why Shakespeare? Why in the Park?

Moderator: Cindy Melby Phaneuf

Stephen Burdman, Toby Leavitt, Jemma Levy, Brian Phillips, Kevin Asselin



Why Free Shakespeare?

Came from more traditional theatre – avg. age was 78, 98% subscribed

Came to free Shakespeare – problems were solved – seeing people together



43rd year of free Shakespeare – underserved rural environments

most populations less than 5,000

majority are working class – ranchers, cowboys, farmers

Communities provide it free – it is the community’s company


Toby – theatre seen as like a playground – for the community, public good



Lots of theatre competition

Reason that I decided we should be free is because most important thing is theatre being accessible to everyone

Still a very segregated community despite being mostly wealthy

Geographically accessible, financially, intellectually – make theatre and story clear enough so that people who think they won’t understand Shakespeare understand Shakespeare



Creating audiences for Shakespeare – 79% under 60 (avg. 31) – the more good Shakespeare is out there, the better it is for all of us

Creating lifelong Shakespeare devotees

Video on NY Classical Theatre



Did not start as solely FSITP

Park tour 8 or 9 years old

Allowed company to keep revenue coming in all year long

Serving a lot of communities that don’t normally come to Mainstage theatre and create future Cincinnati audiences

Started economic and became mission-driven


Toby – did a couple indoor productions for a couple years; for many patrons it was the first theatre ticket they had purchased

25% of audience seeing first professional theatre production



Toby – 5 different settings

Recently, more intention coming into community – not a lot of traditional infrastructure for theatre work

Amphitheatre at McLaren – only used for Jerry Garcia Day

Shakespeare camps first before bringing in Free Shakes at McLaren so we had a base of “ambassadors”

Some people drove 4 hrs from Central Valley, etc. Made time to come to shows.


Intersection of landscape in Montana

Very different landscapes in Montana/Wyoming/etc

Traveling stage – 2 hrs building, 2 hrs performing, 2 hrs tearing down – could be in a town of 17

Can be on top of a mountain, in a park among willow trees, canyon, Missoula campus

Language-based – very literate community (most didn’t have cable till recently)

Cowboy w/ Complete Works – language of Shakespeare relevant to what he did

Population of Montana has been exposed to more Shakespeare than 99% of NYC population

Only cultural outlet – annual event



Using landscape for France and England – used boats to transport audience – gave audience visceral experience of going to war; excitement, fear, concern

Most exciting experience of theatre


Video – Bard in the Backcountry



University Town – “oh! Shakespeare! I should go to that.”

Thing we struggle with is segregation of upper-class people on one side and lower-class on the other and never the two shall meet

Making introductions to the community

Most important thing we’ve found is to say “we want audience to look at stage and see themselves” – casting is key; as cast has diversified, audience slowly becomes more diversified


Audiences are coming back because it is free

Jemma – one guy at every single performance (including indoor performances)


Toby – When you take tix out of the equation, you need to ask for everything; will not perform in community that does not have “skin in the game” in some way

Kevin – 28% of our budget is covered by sponsorship, 20% fees, other sources come from grants, donations at venues

Jemma – 80% of funding came from individual donations

Having an actor explain that actors need to pay the rent, etc during curtain call, have actors surround

Cindy – Talk to audiences, let them know

Stephen – 60% individual funded, he does the pitch, talks about health insurance

Donations can be split between actors who volunteer to do the basket

Brain – passing the hat is smallest form of funding; mostly large corporations, individual parks pay for each performance


Question: since you are also a ticketed entity, is there a crossover?

Kevin – created a time gap between Free Shakespeare and Ticketed Shakespeare, and ticketed sales went up


Audience Questions

Question: More people walk out of free Shakespeare than paid when there is just one free performance – idea that it’s free so it can’t be any good?

Peter – lots of people give it a try, and then it’s not their cup of tea

Kevin – largest investment is in talent; if audience is walking out, then it’s a problem with our staff. If investment is made in talent and effort is made, it has usually worked out to maintain audience

Toby – over time, higher prices will undermine work that we all do

Jemma – maybe issue is that one performance is free

Brian – is there a way to get some other type of investment from the audience? Surveys, are you glad you’re here?

Location – if it’s in a highly trafficked area, people will be curious and come and watch


Question: Surveys – how do you track audience?

Prize is a good option – i.e. partnership with a hotel and audience can win a prize if they fill out survey and let their information be shared with hotel


Question: Text-based donations?

Actually very expensive


Stephen – we don’t ever lose audience – we only gain audience


Question/comment: Companies w/ combination paid and free performances

More bells and whistles puts more value on a production

What if you put a 10% off coupon for paid shows in free program?



Start to utilize where you’re getting your funding from – i.e. getting city council to co-branding survey

If you can, tell free audience what they’re getting is a 40 dollar value


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