In 2012, Lauren Elias — a Brookline resident of 15 years and lifelong theater artist — saw a production in a near-empty theater.
She paid $120 for her and a friend to support one of the performers. The cast was “pouring their hearts out,” Elias said, but nobody was there to see it.
That night, she said, helped her realize why “theater is dying” has become a common refrain: “We’re killing it,” she said. “We’re just making it [so expensive] that nobody can come.”
The experience inspired her to co-found the Brookline-based Hub Theatre Company of Boston, with its pay-what-you-can model of ticket pricing. Patrons choose their ticket price, and the theater relies on grants and donors to supplement the ticket sales. Since its creation in 2012 Hub Theatre has performed throughout the area.
Elias, now the producing artistic director of the company, said she wanted to remove the monetary barrier between art and audiences.
“I wanted to see what would happen if I basically threw the doors of the theater wide open and said ‘all are welcome,’” Elias said.
With over a decade of good reviews, she thinks it’s worked.
Elias recalled one production pre-pandemic in the First Church In Boston. An older man seemed to have been dragged there by his wife. He grimaced at the folding chairs when he walked into the room, but his attitude shifted as the performance went on.
“As the audience was leaving, he comes up to me and hands me a check for $500 and says, ‘I judged you all prematurely, because that was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in Boston and beyond and you guys deserve this,’” Elias said. “It was surreal. I will say I’ve never run to the bank faster, just in case.”
The pay-what-you-can model draws in audience members of all backgrounds — from those who can donate if they’re impressed to parents bringing their children to the theater for the first time to unhoused individuals.
For Bryn Boice, director of “The Book of Will” — The Hub’s latest production, which opened last week at the Boston Center for The Arts — this “robust audience” is fuel for her creativity.
By removing the financial barrier, productions aren’t just for “one kind of audience,” which means she has to make her work “beautiful and clear for all kinds of people.”
“I feel like I have an obligation to get people back into the theater,” Boice said. “People think that this art form is dying. It’s not dying, it’s just become inaccessible.”
“The Book of Will” tells the story of two of Shakespeare’s closest friends as they attempt to publish the first folio of his work in the years following his death. Cleveland Nicoll, who plays one of those two leads, called it a “beautiful piece.”
Nicoll grew up in a working class family outside of Salt Lake City. He remembers his mother aunt and grandmother pooling their money so he could see his first professional production — the national tour of “Wicked.”
“It took a lot to just see a professional production,” Nicoll said. “When your goal is to affect and to move people, when a huge majority of the population is unable to attend strictly because of financial reasons, it’s heartbreaking. So I love the pay-what-you-can approach.”
Beyond the pay-what-you-can model, the company has a donation drive connected with each of its shows, such as last summer’s clothing drive that went to Rosie’s Place and Pine Street and a toy drive to help children in foster care around the holidays.
“I want us to be a theater company with a big heart,” Elias said. “You don’t need [theater] to live in the way that you need food, water and fire, but we want to do everything we could to help.”
To Boice, the power of theater shouldn’t be “relegated to one class of people.”
“Theater is the one place where you can go and sit in a room and feel empathy all together,” Boice said. “That cannot be something just for one class of people. That’s not fair, and that’s not the world that I want to direct in.”