Jonathan Mandell has an excellent story in TCG about the theater subscription model, which is currently existing in a Schrodinger's cat set-up—simultaneously thriving and stone dead. Serious theater-types should take the time to read and think on Jonathan's article. The rest of you should scroll down and look at that picture of Hedy Lamarr some more. Yowza.
For me, the question of where the subscription model is heading is moot for two reasons. The first is that I live in New York, surrounded by so many theaters that it would be insane to commit to just one. I'm down the street from BAM, and so might throw my hat in the ring for them, but I've seen enough bad shows there that I don't really want to sign on for a whole season. The only place I might consider subscribing is Classic Stage, because they rarely produce bad work, and because their shows sell out so quickly that only subscribers really have a chance of getting a seat.
Despite my love for CSC, it's unlikely that I'll ever subscribe to a theater, and that's because of the second reason. Put bluntly, theater subscriptions are lame. I'm fully corrupted by the stereotype of the theater subscriber—a middle aged liberal who re-ups his or her subscription every year because going to the theater is a thing one ought to do, like listening to NPR or giving to PBS. I realize that's completely unfair, but it's the image I have in my head, and I suspect that the ten or fifteen other young people who think about this kind of stuff might be on the same wavelength.
I've seen plenty of writing about how THE OLD MODELS ARE BROKEN WE HAVE TO FIND NEW MODELS, but until people are able to offer alternatives, the subscription model remains worth thinking about. Jonathan quotes a few theater directors who have come up with interesting ideas. At Seattle's ACT, $25 buys a card that lets members see any play they want. At Mixed Blood, in Minneapolis, they've found that it's cheaper for the theater to give away seats than to sell them for super-cheap, so they just let a lot of people in for free. Mandell doesn't mention it, but the Signature Theatre's $25 ticket initiative is along the same lines—the kind of thing that makes me think, "Hey! I'd pay to see that!"
Compared to this kind of forward-thinking discount, the subscription model is undoubtedly a dinosaur. Paying $60 or so for the right to purchase tickets feels like gouging—the way the Jets and Giants charged thousands of dollars for Personal Seat Licenses that allow fans to buy season tickets. I never want to feel bound to a theater, and I think other twentysomething theater-folk feel the same way. If I'm right, in fifteen or twenty years, not only will the subscription model be dead, but so will the "IS THE SUBSCRIPTION MODEL DYING?!!!!" thinkpiece. Few will mourn either.
But for now, read Jonathan's piece. It's great. He's great. Theater's great. Let's all have fun, y'all.