The Problem with Comp Tickets

Anyone who works in the theatre is familiar with the concept of complementary tickets. Often, they are factored into the contracts for director, designers, production crew, and sometimes even actors. “The [artist] shall receive two complementary tickets for personal use and unlimited access to complementary tickets for industry use.” What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, a personal comp is for your friend and family, while an industry comp is for agents, managers, casting directors, producers, etc.

As a director and an actor, it’s always helpful to have at least one or two personal comps for my use on a project. My husband loves to come support everything I do, but if we had to pay regular price for everything…let’s just say it would get out of hand quickly. So that comp ticket for my hubby is great. If I have other comps available to me, I love offering them to friends who frequently support my work or need that extra cash for something much more important. Lord knows, we’ve all be there. Having industry comps is also nice, because it allows me to invite potential future employers or possible representatives to come and see my work. It’s all good stuff.

However…as a producer, the comp ticket sentiment changes quite a bit. While working at the independent (off-off and off-broadway) level, especially if you are operating under Equity Showcase Code, your entire world view revolves around creating a budget that allows artistic freedom, thematic expression… and that makes money. From a basic mathematical standpoint, anyone will tell you, it’s almost impossible to make a large profit. The formula is strangely weighed against you. You sit there poring over the numbers in your head and frantically writing them down: “if we spend X-amount overall and we sell 70% of the house at full value every night for 16 performances…then we will break even…given there isn’t a last minute catastrophe during tech…!” Then you start to dream and enjoy the numbers game, “ah! But if we spend X-amount overall and we sell 85% of the house at full value every night for 16 performances…THEN we will make a profit!!!” It’s very seductive.

What throws this beautiful mathematical equation off? What are your producing nightmares made of? Well…what are some of your producing nightmares made of? Comp tickets. Industry comp tickets. Traditionally, you assume that every member of the production and creative teams are going to have at minimum one comp ticket. You make peace with the fact that there will be one entire house-worth of seats not paid for, and that’s okay! It’s a nice gesture to your team and that’s a good thing.

However, once you let everyone know that you are required to give them unlimited industry comps…the conversation sometimes goes like this:

Actor: HEY! So, I need an industry comp for Saturday’s evening performance…

Producer: Sure, no problem. What’s their name and title?

Actor: John Doe…and I don’t know what the title would be…just put down the name. He doesn’t need an industry packet or anything.

Producer: Oh…well, what company is he with?

Actor: Ooooooh, I can’t remember, a small company. He’s a freelance producer. We go way back and he loves to come see my stuff when he can.

Producer: So, he isn’t coming to see your work for a reference or for possible future work?

Actor: I mean, he always keeps me in mind for stuff. Also, I don’t have any personal comps left, so I figured this was the best thing to do.

Producer: Okay, that’s fine. But just so you know, industry comps are normally reserved for agents, managers, casting directors, and typically people who don’t know your work or might be looking to hire you for the future. They are not for friends who just happen to also be “industry.”

Actor: Oh. Okay. I’ll keep that in mind for next time. Thanks!

Frustrating. You can’t say no…you don’t even want to say no, honestly. But for every unfounded “industry” comp ticket that you give away…that’s one more full price seat gone. If that performance isn’t sold out, you don’t mind so much, as it’s nice to have a fuller house no matter what. Yet, if you are sold out and turning paying customers away…knowing that there are seats in the hours with non-industry-industry butts in them…it’s irritating. It’s also easy to lose sight of the knowledge that often the first conversation to happen is this:

Actor: I’m in this super cool show and  you should totally come see it! We open next week.

Friend: Oh, yeah! I’d love to, but how much are tickets?

Actor: Only like $15, you can get them at the door or online. I think I have a discount code here somewhere too.

Friend: Oh…well, you think I could get a comp? I’m not union or else I would use my card to get in and I’ve got so many other shows to see…

Actor: I would love to but I’m out of personal comps already.

Friend: Oh, I can get an industry comp! I produced a small play last year and I’m the Artistic Director of Occasionally-When-I-Feel-Like-It Theatre Company.

Actor: Sure, I’ll let the producer know!

Now, who is to blame here? The actor? No, the actor just wants their friends and colleagues to be able to enjoy their work without spending all that hard earned cash. Totally understandable and relatable. They aren’t trying to screw anyone over. The friends/colleagues posing as industry? Well…I’d like to say YES, but in reality I know that’s not true. They want to see everyone they know in everything they do, but of course they don’t want to pay, it’s expensive. The union, perhaps? No, the system was set up with the actor’s future in mind. It was designed with the best of intentions.

The showcase code system concerning industry comps was designed believing that people would have a clear cut understanding and respect for who is industry and who is a friend/colleague. The producers, the ones who say, “sure,” are they to blame? Well no. Not only are we legally required to give industry comps, we want to give them. Producers understand the importance and desire to give exposure and find representation for their creatives. In the ideal world, an actor would invite potential agents/managers/casting directors they auditioned for recently and upon seeing their killer performance these people call the actor in for a role or representation. But sadly, that’s not always the way it works out.

So, what is to be done? The producers are frustrated with the financial ramifications. The actors are tired of the third-degree. The friends and colleagues are trying to save money. The union…is not going to change anytime soon. So, what do we do today? In my mind, it’s easy. If your friend has a show coming up and you can afford a ticket…BUY one. If you can’t afford a full price ticket, ask for a discount code if there is one. If you still can’t afford it, perhaps you will be lucky enough to get a personal comp. If you can’t afford a ticket and you don’t get a comp, don’t go. OR support them on social media, help them get the word out, offer to run the box office or usher one evening. GIVE your time in order to RECEIVE a comp ticket. There are often opportunities available, but you have to desire to give your time in exchange.

“But Samantha, I’m an industry professional!” Well, if you are a real industry professional and you want to attend a colleague’s production with honest intentions of taking notes and scouting…then by all means, ask the producer or the actor for an industry comp and packet, they would love to give you one! However, if you have NO intention of doing any of that…please, just buy a ticket and support your friend. Support live theater. Support your community!

It’s never an easy conversation to have. At the end of the day, we all want to give everyone the opportunity to see our artwork. But sadly, due to the constraints of the business-side of things…it’s just not possible to give everyone everything for free. One day, we all hope to make it rain comp tickets on everyone who has ever supported our work. And one day, we will. But today, we need to pay the bills and work together to bring a higher quality theatrical experience to the indie theatre scene.




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