People are laughing at how high the ticket prices are at this theater.

A Spanish comedy club has taken the ol’ classic “pay-what-you-can” marketing ploy to the next level, and it has been so successful the club and its patrons have been laughing all the way to the bank.

In response to an increase in theater production taxes from 8% to 21%, the club in question, called Teatreneu (say that again with a Spanish accent for optimum effect), developed a new form of technology that measures how many times you laugh during their show . . . and charges based on how much you enjoy the show.

Yep, it’s pay-per-laugh.

They outfitted the backs of each seat with a camera-equipped iPad aimed right at your face – and software in the iPad recognizes when you laugh . . . and keeps a tally.  At the end, you pay .30 Euros for each time you chuckled or belly-laughed (with a max of $30).

Pretty . . . well, hysterical, don’t you think?

Well, get this.  According to this article, attendance has spiked 35% and ticket prices $7.50 (a hefty %age for a comedy club).

Now, obviously you have to credit some of this increase from the press they are getting for this fabulously innovative idea (I mean – facial recognition software at a Spanish comedy club?  When anyone that works for me says, “We can’t do that,” I’m now going to answer – “If they can have facial recognition software at a Spanish comedy club, then I’m sure we can figure it out.”).  But the bottom line can’t be ignored.  With ticket prices skyrocketing around the globe, and with more and more options for entertainment being beamed to every device you own, people want a guarantee that their investment of dollars (or euros) and even more importantly, their investment of time, is going to be worth it.

But that’s not what excited me most about this initiative.

After hearing Ellen Isaacs, the Ethongraphist, speak at TEDxBroadway 2013, I became obsessed with observing our audience.  And I wondered if there was a way to shoot video during a performance of the audience . . . to find out when they were laughing, yes, and when they were crying, and when they were sleeping.  Watching their responses could give the Authors and Producers an EKG of audience enjoyment beat by beat . . . and they could tweak the show accordingly.  It was this concept that inspired me to use “dial testing” on my out of town tryouts of Somewhere in Time (which inspired this front page NY Times story).

And now here comes the Spaniards with this technology that could revolutionize audience research.

Can you imagine being able to see how data culled from involuntary audience responses could help you determine what jokes were working?  What jokes weren’t working?  How an audience was reacting DURING a song when they are not supposed to applaud?

My critics will say, “Oh, Ken, a good Producer can feel audience response.  You can hear it.”  Yeah, that’s true. I can get a sense of an audience’s energy when I’m standing in a theater.  But let me ask you this, if you weren’t feeling well, would you want your doctor just looking at you?  No, you’d want them running every test that your insurance company could afford, wouldn’t you?  I’m not going to rely on any feeling when millions of dollars of other people’s money is at stake, especially when I’m so close to the material.

So if me wanting to rely on tests and data makes me a bad Producer with any peers, then I’ll wear that badge with pride.   But something tells me my investors will be pretty happy about it.

So laugh all you want at initiatives like pay-per-laugh and what could come from technology like this, but it just may end up costing you.


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  • I’m laughing just imagining people trying to suppress giggles to keep their ticket price down. What a funny scheme.

  • Carvanpool says:

    Nothing like more intrusive technology to suck the spontaneity out of the live experience. Another bad idea.

  • Jared says:

    I feel like you can go too far with this idea, Ken. There are certainly shows that were not well received when they opened that are now considered classics and/or groundbreaking. I understand Broadway is a business, but it is also an art, and I’m already concerned that the focus on the bottom line is taking the art and innovation out of new shows.

  • Electronically up to date. After getting a read on what works and what doesn’t, you might want to reinforce your re-writes with a ‘laugh-track’ just to make sure. My God, all the emotion is going away!–sjc

  • Paul L. says:

    Go Ken, go. It’s a whole lot better than “more flowers and more girls”.

    Always remember, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”

  • Carl says:

    Ditto Jared, ditto Steven Conners. Beware sitcom mentality.

  • Sorry for being long winded in this message but I wanted to talk about an experience I just had this week.

    I stood in a new theatre space with the man who 30+ years ago saw a resume with no theatre experience, believed in me and provided my start in theatre as he cast me in his show based on my audition piece. I saw a space that rose up from nothing, an old building converted to a magical theatre stage. Performed? An original play written by my acting mentor called “Celibacy”. Audience? Small, intimate 50 seat house. Result? sold-out performances, front of the house trying to add seats so everyone could attend, audience grew to 60…70. Felt? Standing ovations in a simplistic environment because the other man I was talking with was the lead actor who can take you away on any journey he performs. Conversation with the two of them? Simple.. We discussed performance, both agreeing a single actor on stage with a spotlight in the moment who can capture an entire audience with his/her presence is priceless. Me? Just a dreamer in a different city that wants to capture audiences with new ideas that will leave them with their toes tapping and will spark emotions that will be talked about for a very long time. But you see, I am in a difference space than “The Great White Way”, I am at the very beginning of the dream , creating something from nothing and from this view, I do not see how “advanced technology” improves creativity because it can never replace the imagination of the person creating the show, the mind of the actor performing it, or where the inner thoughts of the audience are at the time of performance.

  • fran says:

    I think if I knew I had a camera in my face, I’d be self-conscious and it would pull me away from the play. And if I didn’t know, I think it would be an invasion of privacy.

    I was fortunate as a college student to have William Melnitz teach me Directing 1 and 2. I remember the question came up about is an audience paying attention? His advice was listen to the silence. If the audience is still, they’re concentrating and involved in the story. If there’s a lot of rustling and coughing, you’re losing them.

    I think we can find out what an audience thinks without the high tech – who’s paying for the high tech?

    Another easy way to find out what an audience is thinking is get on the bathroom line. Lots of honest comments for free.

  • I think it’s good for the Producers, but a bit invasive for the audience. I think that if they knew they were being recorded, they would censor themselves, and that’s never good for the production. It would ruin the authenticity, especially in this climate, when everyone is taking selfless and so judgmental about their appearance/actions. I wouldn’t do it; it just contributes to this culture of narcism and lack of authenticity.

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