The Cost of Fringe Tickets

Right now in DC we find ourselves in the middle of the Capital Fringe Festival. I’m a proud Fringe veteran myself; I did a reading of my play ABSTRACT NUDE in the first festival, then produced it there the following year. I had a sold-out run, got lots of publicity, and (most importantly) made theater I was really proud of that lots of people seemed to enjoy. (I met my wife during the run of that show, too.) It was a terrific experience, and it was important in my development as an artist.

I love the DC Fringe. I love that it gives young theater practitioners a chance to make a splash. I love that it gives veteran theater practitioners an opportunity to experiment. I love that it serves as a laboratory in which one can learn all the ins-and-outs of producing theater. I love the stripped-down aesthetic of a lot of the work that gets produced. I love how goofy and personal some of the shows seem to be (even though I typically don’t choose to see those shows). I love that it stands as a giant contrast to the thriving theatrical mechanism that runs in the city throughout the rest of the year.

In one way, however, it’s starting to look more and more *like* the rest of the theater being made in the city: it’s getting expensive. Single tickets this year cost a whopping $17; you can get passes that reduce the price as low as $12, but only if you see 10 shows in 18 days. (For $300 they’ll let you see as much as you want, which technically makes it possible to reduce the price even further… but come on, please.) A more accessible four-ticket or six-ticket package (which is still a lot of theater to cram into two-and-a-half weeks) still sets you back $15 a pop.

But the cost doesn’t stop there, because in order to get into a Fringe show, you have to be wearing a Fringe button, which they’re happy to sell you for a mere $7. That makes the single ticket price effectively $24, to which I can only say: $24! Are you kidding me?

Actually, it’s worse than that: if you buy the ticket online, there’s a service charge of $3.75. A single ticket is actually $27.75. For a Fringe show. That is just wrong. Of course, I bought one anyway, out of friendship and in support of the artist whose show I saw. But I felt put-upon in doing so — not by my friend, of course, but by Fringe.

Look: I don’t want to dig into the theater practitioner economics. I don’t want to talk about how much it costs to produce a show at Fringe. I know, from experience, what it costs, and I also know nobody’s getting rich. I sincerely hope nobody’s doing it to make money. In fact, I hope most people are doing it as an investment, one that will pay off in professional development. I hope people are expecting to lose money and gain knowledge. That’s how I did it, and that’s how I think it should be done.

What I do want to talk about is what it must feel like for an audience member to pay $27.75 to see a Fringe show, which carries with it the freight of experimentation, roughness, and the potential for failure. Seeing a Fringe show is a lark: something one does with lightness of heart and low expectations. You might be in for something wonderful, and you might pass a boring hour in the company of four other bored patrons in a mostly-empty space. I’m sorry to say, but that’s just not a $27.75 experience. That’s a $10 or $12 experience at most. Or $15 and screw the button. No, $12 and screw the button.

Yes, that means less money for the artists doing the producing. There’s no way around that, barring some major shift in the way our tax dollars support the arts or a stunning investment from a local corporation, neither of which seem likely. I wish that weren’t the case, believe me — and please know that I’m not saying this as someone who makes a ton of money in theater, because (and I hope this isn’t a surprise to anyone) nobody makes a ton of money in theater. There’s simply no way I could ever be paid for the many long hours I work as a playwright. I do it, in fact, as a community service, and while I’d like to make more money, I don’t expect my financial picture to change drastically any time soon.

There was a brief moment when I was asked to be part of the Fringe Advisory Board. I said yes, but nothing ever came of it: no one ever consulted me on anything. I can’t say that if I was actually part of that august body, ticket prices would have remained where they were when I started — and where they were, honestly, I cannot recall — but I can tell you that’s the first thing I would have brought up… because I love Fringe, and I want it to do well and mean something and (above all else) be accessible to lots of people. Is that going to happen at $27.75 for a single ticket? I really don’t know, but I highly doubt it.

42 thoughts on “The Cost of Fringe Tickets”

  1. That’s really too much.  Toronto Fringe tickets are $10, and that’s really enough. Since Fringe can be a bit of a crap shoot, asking someone to pay that much for a ticket really takes you out of the realm of Fringe and into standalone production.  $27.75 would really make me less likely to see shows.

    1. Even the price of a second show, once you’ve bought the button — $20.75 — is really much more than it should be. Toronto seems to have kept its pricing head on its shoulders…

      1. Not just Toronto.  The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals requires a ticket price of $10.  The CAFF includes several US cities, including Orlando, New York, Boulder, Indianapolis, and San Francisco.  Not DC (by the ticket price, they don’t even qualify).

        Its too bad.  The price seems to put the DC fringe outside the norm and way to high for the experimentation that seems necessary both for audiences and performers at a fringe fest.

        1. It is too bad. It makes me wonder whether the festival hasn’t in some way lost its way, or perhaps its position within the DC theatrical ecosystem. Part of the problem MIGHT stem (high speculation here) from the fact that it comes up in the calendar right after the Source Festival in DC, with which it must be competing for attention. Hard to say, though…

    2. Even the price of a second show, once you’ve bought the button — $20.75 — is really much more than it should be. Toronto seems to have kept its pricing head on its shoulders…

  2. Indeed, it used to be affordable at $12 per ticket. I know I have a quality show, but I also know that it’s a crap shoot for many of the shows. I guess paying near $30 (or even more) is something I associate with some of the bigger theaters in town. 

    It is a major professional development opportunity – Pinky Swear wouldn’t have existed without it. But I feel like we’re gouging a little. 

    1. No one should be ashamed of the work they’re doing. The work itself may very well be “worth,” in some sense, the cost. But it’s a question of accessibility. If larger theaters are selling tickets for the same amount, then Fringe doesn’t represent a genuine alternative to traditional options. It fails to serve what I believe to be one of its core purposes: to bring theater to the city at an accessible, affordable price.

  3. As a veteran of multiple fringes, I was surprised to see what some companies were charging for tickets at this year’s Hollywood Fringe. In general, I agree that over fifteen dollars for a fringe show is too much, though there may always be special circumstances.  The average cost of a ticket certainly shouldn’t be over $15.

    But as a participant in the Hollywood Fringe, which operates on an approximation of the Edinburgh model, I also know how much some of the artists were paying for their performance slots. It was, per performance, more expensive than I’ve previously paid in Edinburgh, and I understand the impulse to try to recoup as much as possible.

    My show charged $10 for tickets, what I thought to be a fair price for a polished 70 minute piece of unusual theatre, and offered a discount for other Fringe artists. We had mostly decent houses and didn’t quite break even. None of us got paid, but we didn’t lose much, and the piece seem to really mean something to most of those who saw it. So I think we came out ahead, all things considered.

    On the other hand, I was also surprised to see what some companies put up as a “Fringe” production, but that’s something that happens at the Ed Fringe as well (‘Little Shop’? ‘The Last Five Years’? Really?) and probably a subject for another time.

    1. See: that’s exactly the model I feel is appropriate. $10 or $15 tickets, nobody makes money (but nobody loses much, either), and everyone has a good time experimenting and learning.

  4. Sorry to hijack, but did you take down your post about your submission record?  It shows in my reader, but I can’t get to it, and can’t find it here.

    1. Ah. Yeah, sorry. That was a draft that I accidentally published before it was ready. I returned it to “draft” status — it’ll go live in August, I think — but your reader may have caught it during the few minutes it was live…

      Thanks for reading so closely, though!

  5. I have had the same issue and qualm, especially with the button idea. i think that deters MANY single ticket buyers, partially because it’s confusing, and partially because it pushes up the price for single tickets buyers and therefore creates an insular community as opposed to an expansive one. We need to figure out a way to appropriately price the tickets in a clear way. 

    1. I had a suggestion from a friend: make the first ticket price include a coupon or code that entitles the bearer to discounts on a all future tickets, integrating (or hiding) the cost of the button that way. But really… the lack of clarity around the button is part of the problem.

      1. I’ve railed against the button in the past over at We Love DC and I’ve just given up. Juliana and I had a polite conversation about it at previews but she’s dug in on the issue. The position she takes is one about the money it brings to the artists. 

        I expressed my concern – and personal experience via observation – about how it turns off random or one-time goers, as Ambordi says. Last year I was waiting for a show at the Apothecary, over near my beloved bar The Passenger. Two people walking by stopped and asked the person at the ticket table what was going on. 

        They got the short description of Fringe and they asked how much it was. The ticket seller told them and got a “well, that’s not bad, maybe” sort of reaction. They started the sales part and then got the “and you need a button.”

        Their reaction was clearly that they felt like they were being nickled and dimed, and they even said “but I only want to go to this one show.” In the end they walked on by – two potential introduction to the interesting theater we have around town that isn’t $80 at the Landsburg. I think it’s a shame. 

        It may not be Fringe’s primary mission to expose newbies to theater but I think it should at least be in the top five.

        1. I am a very occasional theatergoer who would like to go to one show, and I absolutely feel like I’m being nickel-and-dimed. What is with having to keep track of a button if I want to go to another show? I change purses all the time. What if I forget the button at home? Or what if I’m already out, decide I’d like to go to a show, and don’t have the button on me? Or what if I buy a button online with the ticket to a show, to be picked
          up at will-call, then decide I want to go to another show that’s
          earlier in the schedule? Do I have to pay for another button?

          I assume that part of the financial benefit of the button system, for the festival, is that
          people will forget them at home and have to buy new ones. I imagine the organizers are good people who don’t think they’re trying to trick me into buying multiple buttons, but that is absolutely how it feels on the consumer’s end.

          It’s not just the buttons. I’m confused by the whole ticket-buying process (passes? what?), I can’t find answers to my questions on the website, I can’t understand why tickets costs so much, and I would have given up entirely if a close friend of mine weren’t in one of the shows.

          1. You are the test case for why I consider the price a problem. Once again, the theater feels off-putting (in yet another way) to someone who’s curious. I can only tell you that they aren’t actually nickel-and-diming anyone, though I get that it feels that way… but if you don’t buy a ticket, I understand.

            There’s lots of great theater in this town, though. Much more than people realize. I hope you do go see a show! And if you want suggestions for the Fringe, here are a few:


        2. I have to agree that the alienation of one-time and first-time ticket buyers is a significant issue. The Fringe Festival has served as an entry point for people who don’t typically see theater — a way to get them interested in the art form. Losing that is problematic…

          … but the festival sees itself as artist-focused, not audience focused. I believe that’s part of the problem here.

      2. Rodney Atkins

        Yes. As said friend, I think the button is a marketing/publicity problem, not a financial problem. There are multiple ways to deal with the button and the money associated with it, but the most important thing is that it not be a hassle, which is what it is now.

        I think maybe the Fringe people are so attached to the button because it represents the artists being paid, but they’re beginning to suffer from the Paul Principle (unfortunately, there are many competing Paul Principles; the one I mean is): Eventually every organization’s founding goal will be supplanted by the goal of keeping the organization together.

        1. I would like to believe that the Fringe folks remain flexible and innovative and open to change…if only because they introduced the button in the first place, which suggests they’re quite willing to experiment and explore new ideas.

          My entirely under-informed opinion is that the button would do better as a voluntary, optional purchase. Hell, you could charge more for it — say, $10 — and make it a point of pride for people to wear it and assert their support of artists over and above their ticket purchase. The buttons could still be linked to discounts, too.

          The difficulty might be in making the move from where we are to that sort of model. There may be too much resentment built up around the buttons for people to make a switch…

  6. Wlmshakespeare

    thanks for a thoughtful discussion on this topic.  What Fringe fails to see, or what the Board of Directors of Fringe fails to see, is that by charging $10-12 for a ticket, people would see more shows, houses would be bigger, and they would make the same amount of money, if not more.  I am not opposed to the Button idea, for one reason: It allows Fringe to know how many Individuals came to the festival.  Without it Fringe would only know how many tickets were sold.  It is invaluable for raising money public or private, to be able to say 13000 people bought 30,000 tickets, which means on average everyone saw roughly 3 shows.  If you go to a festival and see only one show, its not a festival for you.  And if you PLAN to see a festival the cost of a button is split up.  I plan to see 10+ shows so for me it’s an extra .75 cents or so. 
       I agree, Ticket costs are out of scale, and i firmly believe that cheaper tickets would increase the number of plays each individual would see. And our performers audiences would see a marked increase in numbers. Also, if tickets were that reasonable, we would not care about the button at all.  – Daniel Flint

    1. The button does not tell Fringe how many individuals are attending…people are sharing buttons so that they can afford to go to more shows.  I know that’s not “right,” but the whole button thing seems ridiculous to me.  Like he said, the artists shouldn’t be looking to make money.  It’s an investment for them, and they should know that going into it.

      1. If the buttons were intended simply to count the number of people who attended shows, they could be sold for a penny. As it is, they are widely shared, which undermines that argument further.

        What I find myself wondering now is whether they couldn’t be made voluntary. Buy them if you like, and the money all goes directly to the artists.

    2. Thanks, my friend! I share your instinct that cheaper tickets might inspire multiple visits… but that’s just my guess. I defer to those with advanced degrees in economics as to the soundness of that claim.

    3. I’m not going to get into the whole button issue, because I accept the button as a necessary evil. I’m just going to talk numbers. Fringe sold nearly 34,000 tickets last year, according to the Washington City Paper, and they’re slightly off that pace this year. Let’s say they’re on pace to sell 30,000 tickets this year. Dropping the ticket price w/o any increase in sales would result in a $150,000 drop in revenue. That would be an utter disaster for Fringe. They’d have to sell 12,500 additional tickets to equalize that reduction in ticket prices, and that doesn’t factor in intangibles like the greater costs likely required to service that many more ticket sales.

      Anyone who bothered to do a bit of research would see where the problem lies. Ticket revenue has gone up year-over-year, but contributions & government grants have shrunk at a much faster pace. You simply can’t run Fringe in a vacuum or on the goodwill of the arts community, so the organization’s directors have some difficult choices to make – either spend the money on a professional fundraiser, significantly scale back the festival, or keep raising ticket prices.

  7. As a Fringe artist, I accept that we’re not going to recoup the money my company spends on our shows, even with the buttons. The idea that the buttons somehow help us all break even is disingenuous when you consider how much money it costs just to get into Fringe and how the artist take on ticket sales has decreased. It starts to feel like they up the cost of tickets and the button so that they can give us less of the ticket sales.

    My second frustration is with how much it costs *as a Fringe artist* to go see other Fringe shows. Yes, we get an artist pass (well, 10 people from your group get one, too bad if you have more than 10 people working on your show, as we do), but we still have to buy a button, which makes the first ticket $17 and $10 after that. Would it really be so terrible to give artists buttons? Or to let artists see 1 show for free, on a standby basis if there’s room? Or 5 shows? We’re paying a lot of money to be there, spending a lot of time putting the shows together, and spending a lot of money at the Tent–enjoyably–but we also want to see the shows. We also do HUGE marketing pushes to our non-theatre friends to see our shows and other ones! How can we promote Fringe as a festival if we can’t afford to see any show but our own?

    1. As the co-producer of our show, I will say I agree with Allyson. Pinky Swear has been self-funded through this show. We hope to fundraise in the future, but right now, it’s out of pocket. One thing I wish I could do is pay our performers more. If we broke even on the show, that would help. I just want to run a professional organization that values talent and hard work. 

      That said, the fact that Fringe is the most affordable way to stage a production (way less than renting a space on your own for 5+ performance) is what allowed Pinky Swear to come into being in the first place. It’s a great opportunity to throw your hat in the theatre community ring & see how it feels to create a show from the bottom up. 

      I just wish I didn’t have to charge my friends as much to see our creations. When you order tix online, the first show is $28 with “convenience fees” and buttons. After that, it’s still over $20.

      Pinky Swear’s policy is to buy buttons for everyone involved with our show. I know not every company can afford it. I just use it as a gesture of goodwill & an extra “bonus” that helps my cast/crew feel free to see more shows.

  8. As a Fringe artist, I accept that we’re not going to recoup the money my company spends on our shows, even with the buttons. The idea that the buttons somehow help us all break even is disingenuous when you consider how much money it costs just to get into Fringe and how the artist take on ticket sales has decreased. It starts to feel like they up the cost of tickets and the button so that they can give us less of the ticket sales.

    My second frustration is with how much it costs *as a Fringe artist* to go see other Fringe shows. Yes, we get an artist pass (well, 10 people from your group get one, too bad if you have more than 10 people working on your show, as we do), but we still have to buy a button, which makes the first ticket $17 and $10 after that. Would it really be so terrible to give artists buttons? Or to let artists see 1 show for free, on a standby basis if there’s room? Or 5 shows? We’re paying a lot of money to be there, spending a lot of time putting the shows together, and spending a lot of money at the Tent–enjoyably–but we also want to see the shows. We also do HUGE marketing pushes to our non-theatre friends to see our shows and other ones! How can we promote Fringe as a festival if we can’t afford to see any show but our own?

  9. I am in the same place as you all.  Last year was the first year I fringed.  I performed in a show that was pretty good I am told.  But the best thing was getting a free button and an artists pass which made tickets to other shows like 10 bucks a piece.  Which meant I could reasonably see around 5 shows easily.  Now that I am not doing fringe this year I can see about 2 shows for that same price.  That is ridiculous.

    I am much more willing to shell out 10 bucks a show even if the show is a piece of crap, and be like well I only lost 10 bucks then I am to shell out 17 bucks if the show is a piece of crap and be really pissed off.

    I will love to see how their numbers come out this year and compare to years past.

    I don’t understand why they are so dug in and the whole button issue of money going to the artsits the first year and now they are split between everyone and artists having to pay to get in…its all confusing and not helpful in any way.

    I love the idea of fringe and understand some of it…but as a producer some of it baffles me.

    1. Lee says, of the Capital Fringe Festival, “I would love to see their numbers.”

      Me too. The Capital Fringe management deserves to make some money but we, the artists who create the product, deserve to see the festival balance sheet. 

      I’m considering doing a show at the Fringe (my own venue though) next year, but I probably won’t unless they open the books.

  10. Danny Gavigan

    While a ticket pricing model for independent festivals for the artists by the artists seems appropriate at $10-$15, what it doesn’t take into account is the fact that big theaters can afford to price their tickets at competitive rates because they have affluent donors and board members that infuse their budgets regularly, while Fringe Festivals are largely funded solely by government grants and corporate sponsorships, both of which I know for a fact were severely limited if not completely cut off this year for the Capital Fringe Festival. 

    1. I have no doubt there were severe financial pressures, and I’m very sympathetic. Honestly, I think Julianne and crew deserve a medal for all they have done, against many obstacles, to give us a festival in the first place. If this is a one-year blip to deal with a loss of funding sources, fine…but it’s not a good long-term solution. New funding sources must be found. And prices should then return to more brand- and mission-appropriate levels. No?

  11. Disgruntled Struggling Artist

    Agreed. Without reiterating everything that’s been said so far, I’ve gone to film festivals for cheaper than Capital Fringe. There’s something terribly wrong about that. I don’t pay 27 for a regular season show, why should I for Fringe? Because they’re local artists trying to make a living? So am I. Sorry friends, Fringe is too expensive. I never thought I’d say that.

  12. I think Fringe is very important, as I see it mostly as a democratic, open laboratory for anyone to be able to produce something, be they an established artist experimenting or a total amateur or beginner.  To that end, I think high-cost tickets are damaging because it’s hard to convince people to come see what you’re doing, and thus to learn how well it’s working.  I know I feel guilty having people pay a lot for something I’ve put on if the result is anything less than polished and top-quality, whereas if tickets were cheaper I would feel more comfortable failing (and learning from failure), or even ‘just’ putting on something that is flawed-but-interesting.  I’m disinclined to even participate – out of a kind of fear of failure, I suppose – if I know the people who come to see it will have to shell out near $30.  And I very much want to participate.

    Personally, I’d be willing to take home absolutely nothing – or to be only paid in the unlikely event that I almost completely sell out – if it would mean $10 tickets and no buttons/optional buttons.  That arrangement would more accurately reflect my conception of Fringe’s purpose.

    1. Here’s the question, though: what if your willingness to take home nothing (and, I would assume, everyone else’s) would still only allow them to reduce the price to, oh, $15 (with the button) or $18 (without the button)? That may be the case… and if it is, it would seem that the only way to make up the difference would be to find additional sources of revenue: government, foundations, individual donors, and corporate donors. What concerns me very deeply is that those four funding sources aren’t sufficient to lower ticket prices — and, more importantly, to support theater at all levels and in all cities. THAT is the elephant in the room in this discussion, really… the one none of us (and no one anywhere) has figured out how to tame.

  13. Fringe has gotten greedy.  I wanted to see a show and it would would have cost me over $25 to include that dumb button. I could have well afforded it, okay, but it’s not all about me.  What about people who can barely afford a $17 ticket?

    I remember when Fringe started up I was there for at least five years of it.  It was fun — until the dumb button.  The number of days increased as well.  Bigger is NOT always better.  Costs go up, and as a result you can start losing people because they don’t want to pay the high cost.

    I love theatre artists because they entertain, and pour their hearts into their work.  I want the best for them, but jacking up prices can backfire especially when not as many butts want to fill the seats.  Just my two cents worth.

    1. I hesitate to call Fringe greedy. I sincerely doubt that greed is in anyone’s hearts in the Fringe Festival offices or on its board. I think they’re probably struggling with a difficult financial situation — a troubled theatrical ecosystem with regard to financial support — and trying to keep the festival thriving.

  14. Everyone is right in this argument:  tickets are too high, the funding sources are diminished, the festival is becoming too big and the mission seems fuzzy.  I am going to fewer shows this year because they cost too much, and I don’t want to suffer through a really poor show or sit through a show in a really uncomfortable space for too long at those prices.  but on the other hand, live theater is expensive and there are a lot of shows, with a lot of lights, sound, and people at the door, etc.  With a more careful at the door management, they will collect more money.  The button helps pay for those one-time only customers.  If the buttons get traded, that is not so bad.  They are probably getting traded among people seeing more than one show….which is the point.  It’s really those first time or one time buyers they seem to try to be hitting up for the extra money.  Who do you tax?  one timers?  or the artists themselves?  or those theater buffs who want to see 10 shows?
      The production standards this year from the audience point-of-view are a wee more consistent and a wee-bit higher, the quality of the shows seem to be a wee bit higher (I may just be lucky), there is more reviewing at an earlier stage in the productions (albeit mostly in the blogs — but hey that’s okay) that do a good job of describing what they are seeing.  This all comes from planning, experience and throwing a bit more money on the audience experience. 
       But the real problem is developing an audience that will come to more than just one show.  Of the 4 shows I have seen, 2 of them (in their second week) have been at about 80%. The other two had just a handful.  It wasn’t quality.  IT was when in the run it was, who was in the show that everyone knew, and if fact – how tame the show was.  The tamer the show….it seemed to me…the more the audience.  This was only my experience.  So ticket pricing is just one aspect of this thing.  Washington has a very large, but fairly conservative audience.  Experimenting with the revenue model is appropriate. It may take them a few more years to get it right.

  15. First and foremost, the folks who run our local Fringe are to be commended for their dedication to innovative theater. 

    Much of the regular theater and symphony audiences during the year are senior citizens. Theater in Washington cannot survive on them in the future as they will die out. Prices for all theatrical performances are high compared with movies or even the new prices on Netflix It’s easier on an impulse to go over to the nearby cinema without having to buy expensive theater tickets in advance. 

    The role of Fringe is twofold, i.e., to provide expression to the budding talent in the city, but also to build theater audiences in general. We can capture younger people (under 50?) with these often exciting productions. 

    The button should be a voluntary fund raiser such as that at the Washington Folk Festival in Glen Echo Park. We know we are basically tossing ten bucks into the kitty to pay for the overhead and proclaim that we support the festival. 

    Don’t exactly know what the price point should be for the Fringe tickets since there is no public information about the cost of shows and their production. Only recently did I learn how much it would cost an acquaintance to participate. There is a tension between recouping costs of production and stimulating audiences. Attending is certainly a gamble, as we have seen excellent productions and stuff that wouldn’t have passed muster at our local high school. 

    It’s great that there is an open discussion of prices at the Fringe Festival! 


  16. I agree as well.  I bought the four ticket pass and had to buy two buttons but then we spent money at the bar.  I’d rather they lowered the ticket price and allowed the companies/producers to put out donation bins.  I’d happily pay $10 a ticket and then give each show an extra $5 in tip.  I don’t know if there are legal reasons not to do so…

  17. Pingback: Fringe Festival Press Roundup « Capital Fringe Blog

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top