Matthew Eames talks about The Lowry's innovative PAY WHAT YOU DECIDE season

Frankly My Dear UK talks to Matthew Eames, the brains behind The Lowry’s innovative PAY WHAT YOU DECIDE season

When The Lowry launched their Pay What You Decide (PWYD) season back in January 2017, it seemed like a bit of wacky idea. Instead of paying for a ticket in advance, audiences are asked to decide how much they want to pay for the performance at the end of the night. Sounds a little risky right? Yet it’s a risk that seems to have paid off. Since its launch, hundreds of people have attended a PWYD performance and interest in the concept continues to grow.

The brains behind the innovative idea is Matthew Eames, The Lowry’s Theatres Programmer and Producer. Keen to remove the risk barriers for audiences who want to try something new but are worried about paying for something they may not enjoy, Eames came up with PWYD concept after seeing a similar project in cinema. The programme is now in its third season and is divided between HUSH HUSH nights and WTF WEDNESDAYS, two completely different offerings designed to appeal to the compulsively curious.

Ahead of this season’s final two PWYD performances, Frankly My Dear UK caught up with Matt Eames to find out how the scheme came to life, what makes it so special and why it’s proved to be so popular.

Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): Can you start by telling us a little bit about PWYD and how the concept came to life? 

Matt Eames (ME): PWYD isn’t unique to The Lowry. I think in the context of theatre, it is unique to Greater Manchester but it has been seen in other places, most notably at ARC in Stockton and also Slung Low in Leeds. As smaller venues who wanted to try and encourage audiences to try something that they wouldn’t normally go for, they adopted this model which is you reserve a ticket in advance for free and you pay what you think on the night. It’s a way of a venue saying we think you’ll like this but we appreciate that when you don’t know who the writer is or you’re not sure about the subject matter, come anyway and see what you think and then pay what you decide at the end of it.

For the scheme of work that The Lowry does, particularly contemporary, cutting-edge and experimental theatre, we wanted to give the opportunity to the audience to give it a go without the risk of stumping up the cash in advance. We’ve been really pleased with the response and certainly can talk about the work more positively. Often with shows that would fit into WTF WEDNESDAY for example, you’re selling something that is often thought-provoking and that deals with big issues often presented in a form that people might not immediately feel like they can understand. It can be a bit intimidating for everybody but with the PWYD model and with WTF, we’re saying don’t worry about what it’s about until you get there. You might watch it all and still not be sure about what it’s absolutely saying but you might really enjoy the experience of how they do it, the images they create and the form they choose. That’s a much more positive way to talk about it than to try and talk about the quite challenging subject matter they often try to address.

FMD: Is that, in part, why the concept works so well? The Lowry is known for its edgy shows but in terms of marketing them, it must be a bit of a challenge to promote them?

ME: Yes, it could be. It wasn’t always because sometimes they find their audience anyway and it would sell well but yes, sometimes it would be trickier than selling a big musical in the Lyric because you’re not guaranteeing the best night out in the theatre. You are talking to a smaller group of people who like to go to the theatre to be challenged. You’re also putting it on because you feel it’s important for people in the North West to see that work, otherwise it’s just for people in London or people at big, posh festivals and that’s not what we want or do. I think we found, from a Lowry point of view, that we’re not doing less work but we’re planning it more in advance. In the past perhaps, you do a lot of work just before the show opens because you’re worried that there’s not going to be enough people there so you start discounting and panicking a little. With PWYD we’re not panicking, we’re being much more positive in advance and saying, just come and have a go.

FMD: It’s certainly a brave initiative. Are you ever worried that audiences will turn up and pay nothing, or worse still, not turn up at all?

ME: I think it would be a worry if we were losing money hand over fist every time but what we’ve found with WTF is that it equals out, so we’re not making a lot more money but we are doing less panicking and are being much more positive and proactive. At the end of the night, it equals out to what we would have made if we’d done it the other way and we’re probably spending a lot less time – which does cost us money – doing the panicking and rushing round at the end trying to get people in who otherwise might not be interested.

FMD: The PWYD season is divided into two different types of shows. What is the difference between HUSH HUSH and WTF Wednesday?

ME: HUSH HUSH is a much more mainstream idea. I came across it in cinema when I was living in Germany for a little while. They have an English cinema and they had a ‘sneak preview’ where you’d go along on a Tuesday night and pay a nominal amount and you would not know what you’re going to watch. All you would know is that it’s a film that is out soon but it was never obvious. There was just a real buzz in the queue and a real buzz in the cinema as you’re waiting for the credits to come up. I always wondered how that might work for theatre but I felt that if I was going to do that, it would need to be a show that would appeal to everybody. It’s trying to tempt those people who want a really good night out and want to be surprised. With HUSH HUSH, the risk is booking a ticket and committing to it but actually once you sit down, you’re in for a good night and you’re not going to be disappointed. Whichever show we select to go into that spot is one that got 4 or 5 star reviews across the country or was a massive hit in Edinburgh and has mainstream appeal. It is more popular, as we intended it to be. People pay more at the end of the night because they have had a fantastic time and are returning. It’s going well but it’s a different offer to WTF. Although they are both PWYD, they appeal to different audiences. The marketing team here have been very clever about that.

FMD: Talking of the marketing team, we’ve been told that HUSH HUSH really is hush hush and only a handful of people in The Lowry actually know what the show is ahead of the performance. How do you go about keeping it such a secret? 

ME: What Daniel [Jarvis – Marketing Manager] and Henry [Filloux-Bennett – Head of Marketing] decided early on was that as soon as you start talking about it, even a little bit, it weakens it so they wanted to say absolutely nothing. We haven’t really described it as a “secret show”, all we’ve said is, it’s happening and people have just got it. I remember the response of the first one was remarkable. I think the first two shows both sold out within a couple of weeks of going on sale. The trick with HUSH HUSH has always been what we put our final capacity at because we can’t quite guarantee that we’re filling every seat. We haven’t had to disappoint anyone but if it continues to go in the way it’s going then we’ll get to a point where we are turning people away – which is lovely.

FMD: What about the artist? It must be a risk for them not being able to shout about their show. Are they usually up for the challenge? 

ME: It is a consideration for them. Often these are shows that would sell very well in their own right if we had them on sale. For some that are on the upward curve, it’s really important for them to have The Lowry on their flyer so if you say I don’t want you to put it on your flyer, it can be disappointing. I tend to select companies that we’ve already pencilled the prospect of coming back so it’s a good way to tell people about this great company that’s coming. Or we go back to companies who are very well established and have a few shows in the bag where it’s not a problem for them to wheel this brilliant show out and take it on the road for a night. Some of them just really like the idea, really like the concept and just want to be involved with it.

FMD: PWYD is now in its third season, how has the audience reaction been so far? 

ME: Fantastic. With WTF, we try to give the audience an all-rounded experience. There’s a WTF drink at the bar that they can buy if they want, there’s a programme which tells them a little bit about what they are going to watch and I’ll always do an introduction that welcomes people. We always ask for feedback at the end in partnership with Word of Warning who are the masters at the more cutting-edge contemporary work. They’re also on hand to talk to people and get feedback so it’s a really rounded experience, it’s not just going to the theatre.

With HUSH HUSH, we try to be more or less invisible and we stick a video on that again tells them what they need to know about PWYD for example. We just to play into the silliness and the fact that they can enjoy it. Aside from that, it’s just a normal theatre experience of collecting a ticket and going and seeing what you think. We try and harness that mysteriousness.

FMD: Do you get see what the audience donations are at the end of the night? 

ME: I keep a really good track of it. It’s more important on these nights that we know exactly how many people are in the room. Normally you know that from how many tickets you’ve sold but that’s not the case with this so we make sure we do a good head count and then we just do a calculation of spend per head. There will be some who don’t pay, whether it’s because they don’t like it or because they can’t afford it, and I’m actually OK with that. It’s us taking the risk. The indications we had from Slung Low and ARC is that it would be between £4 and £6 per head for the edgier stuff and with HUSH HUSH, it’s around the £8 mark. It’s pretty much performing to how we expected it to be.

FMD: Do you think it’s important to keep theatre fresh with these types of initiatives? 

ME: It’s the main reason why I’m doing it, particularly WTF. HUSH HUSH is ultimately a bit of fun and it’ll last as long as it lasts. With WTF, it really is important that we try to find ways to encourage people to give theatre a chance, particularly theatre that breaks down boundaries. What we’re trying to do is answer the question of “why should I come this play about exploring death in a really unconventional way” by stripping away some of the barriers. Once they do come, those people are saying I enjoyed that a lot more than I thought I would and it’s going to stay with me a little bit. I’m going to be thinking about that for the next week and I will be more open minded in the future about spending my hard earned cash on something like this. It’s about being surprised about what theatre can do, that it can have an impact on how you feel about something, as well as telling a really great story.

The Lowry’s PWYD autumn season continues with WTF WEDNESDAY: Two Destination Language – Declining Solo on 8 November and HUSH HUSH on 17 November 2017. Interested in giving it a go? Find out what we thought of Jo Bannon’s WTF WEDNESDAY performance and the secret HUSH HUSH performance earlier this month.