Free Night of Theater 2006: Encore run, still no charge

After a smash debut in 2005, the Free Night of Theater goes nationwide, with 300 performances across the country – including 21 in Austin – being offered at no charge

Last October, Theatre Communications Group, arguably the premier support organization for nonprofit theatres in the United States, joined with theatre organizations in the Austin, Philadelphia, and San Francisco areas to initiate a program offering a free night of theatre. The idea was to entice people who had never attended live theatre to give it a try or to give people who already attend live theatre the opportunity to sample work by companies they hadn't seen before. And entice them they did: After the lights dimmed on the final evening, more than 8,000 people had attended 150 performances in those cities.

Locally, the project was spearheaded by our own nonprofit supporter of live theatre, the Austin Circle of Theaters. "We're a part of the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations," says Latifah Taormina, ACoT's managing director. "We have an annual conference where we share best practices, and it was out of those conferences that TCG asked ACoT, Theatre Bay Area, and Theatre Alliance to pioneer the project. This year we've been on the national steering committee – with conference calls every Friday to make sure all of us all over the country are working together, sending out the same message – and helping and inspiring each other."

This year, more than 300 performances will be offered in cities across the map, including 23 in Boston, 31 in Atlanta, and 34 in Los Angeles. Even whole states have gotten involved, including New Jersey, Connecticut, and North Carolina. Locally, 21 performances will be offered by companies such as Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Esther's Follies, Rude Mechs, Naughty Austin, Salvage Vanguard, and Vortex Repertory Company. Most will take place Thursday, Oct. 19, but several companies are offering tickets to performances after that date. (See the list.)

Given the variety and quality of the offerings, which range from Zach's revival of The Rocky Horror Show with Joe York to Blue Lapis Light's Requiem Revisited on the Intel shell to the premiere production in Salvage Vanguard's new venue on Manor Road, you might want to avail yourself of tickets as quickly as possible. But don't call the companies directly. If it's Free Night tickets you seek, visit TCG's Free Night of Theater Web site: "Part of the reason to have potential audience members go through the site," says Taormina, "aside from giving some nice national publicity to many local theatre communities all around the country, is to facilitate market research that will benefit all the organizations involved. The marketing firm of Mark Shugoll & Associates has designed a questionnaire that everyone going to the TCG site will fill out to get tickets. It's very short and not a hassle at all, but it will allow the firm to go back later and find out things like how many folks who got Free Night tickets went back to their theatres as patrons and how many are going to theatre in general more than they did before. Last year, almost 50% of folks who had come to theatres on Free Night had gone back to those theatres and become regular patrons. That's pretty impressive."

The entire program is impressive. Barring disaster, getting large groups of people to work cooperatively is difficult, but managing to get groups of people all across the country to work for a common purpose is stunning. And they're not nearly finished yet. Says Taormina: "Next year will be the biggest Free Night of all."

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Austin Circle of Theaters, Theatre Communications Group, ACoT, TCG, Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations, Latifah Taormina, Free Night of Theater

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