Ethics Poll: How Bad Does A Theatrical Performance Have To Be To Ethically Obligate A Refund?

Apparently audiences were unhappy with an allegedly subpar performance  of “The Wiz”  at the Brown Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. An unusual number of customers called to call demand refunds, based on complaints ranging from botched lines to a bad Cowardly Lion costume (he looked like e bear) and to a cheesy projection of magical land of Oz  from a laptop projector.

“The Wiz” is the hit Seventies Broadway adaptation of the “The Wizard of Oz,” but with an all-black cast, rock-style music, hip-hop dancing and contemporary slang. It was made into a successful film starring Diana Ross and Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.

Tickets cost between $35 to $65. Despite the complaints, Lavarious Slaughter, the show’s producer for Island Entertainment KC, of Kansas City, Missouri has said that there will be no refunds.

(Lavarious Slaughter? He sounds like an escapee from a Harry Potter book.)

It’s hard for me to tell just how bad the performance was based on second hand accounts. (I wouldn’t pay 65 bucks for the greatest production of “The Wiz” ever. The whole concept behind “The Wiz ” was cynical, and all-black casts are a divisive gimmick. How bad was it?

Helen Barnett was one malcontent who talked to the press. “It was terrible,” Barnett said. “Dorothy was wearing a Walmart dress. They forgot their dialogues … at one point Dorothy said she wanted to go back to Texas!” (In “The Wiz,” Dorothy is from Harlem while Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” is from Kansas.) Other complaint noted that the computer projected set kept  being uninterrupted by pop-up dialogue boxes.

Yeah, that sounds pretty bad.

But funny!

One of the actors, Kori Black, who played the role of the Good Witch of the North tried to explain, “The three o’clock show ended up being pretty much our dress rehearsal because we didn’t have enough time to do the show full-out at the venue before we performed it.”

I have mixed feelings about this, as a former professional theatrical producer and a long-time director and performer. There is no excuse for a badly rehearsed, done-on-the-cheap production that isn’t aimed at giving the audience genuine entertainment. On the other hand, one of the features of live theater that TV and movies lack is that nothing is guaranteed. Stuff goes wrong; things don’t work, actors botch line and entrances, costumes rip, props break, lights blow out. The show goes on. Going to the theater is the ultimate caveat emptor—“Let the buyer beware.” I’ve demanded refunds when projectors broke down in movie theaters, and I’ve given refunds or rain-checks to theater audiences when a performance couldn’t be completed. (Among the causes for those catastrophes: a power outage, a smoke machine that went crazy and blinded everyone, and a lead actor who got knocked cold on stage.) I’ve also had to open shows that were not as ready as I would have liked, but that is a common occurrence everywhere. You can’t give refunds for missed lines. Getting Dorothy’s home wrong is bad for sure, but if that ruins the show for someone, they weren’t going to like anything. One of the most popular and best reviewed productions I ever directed was Orson Welles’ adaptation of “Moby Dick.” One night, the actor playing Ishmael forgot the first line of the play, which is “Call me Ishmael”–one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and also the character’s own name. I got some flack, but the rest of the show recovered.

I fear that audiences are so unfamiliar with live theater that they expect movie-like special effects and the slick perfection that digitally created, multiple  take filming provides. Live theater’s imperfections are part of what makes it dynamic and exciting. On the other hand, those pop-up dialogue boxes sound like the work of a production staff just trying to make a quick buck off the locals and then get out of town.

My policy would be that if a patron asked for a refund, I’d approve it. In 20 years, however, not one of our audience members demanded one.

Now, your poll. Vote for as many answers as you like:


Pointer: Luke

21 thoughts on “Ethics Poll: How Bad Does A Theatrical Performance Have To Be To Ethically Obligate A Refund?

  1. “a lead actor who got knocked cold on stage”

    As in bonked on the head and losing consciousness? Oh you gotta tell us that story (unless you did already in a previous post)!

    • In a production of “Dear World,” the Jerry Herman musical adaptation of “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” a policeman character was staged to run onstage carrying the romantic lead over his shoulder. This required a big actor as the carrier, and he was unfortunately clumsy as well. One night he tripped on his own feet, fell forward and since he was holding the actor on his shoulder by the ankles, that guy was flung forward in a circle over the cop’s head, finally violently smashing the back of his head on the stage as the cop face-planted, still holding the poor guy’s feet. The sound the lead’s head made will live in my nightmares. He was out cold, and I was sure he had fractured his skull. It was spectacular.

      (He was fine. Actors have hard heads.) As a performer, I once knocked myself cold in the middle of the “Rape Ballet” in “The Fantastiks.”

  2. Some of my best times in the theater have been when the old snowball happened and things deteriorate exponentially. Best ever was Danny Kaye in Boston doing “Two By Two” with a broken leg and things went horribly wrong during the show. Scenery crashed, lines missed, and Kaye screwing up, but ever the showman he turned it into a circus with ad libs and the other performers fed off it, so the audience had a great time with a show that was a disaster.

  3. I was employed by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in their Box Office for more years than I would like to recall. Unless the performer’s name was above the show’s title and they failed to perform, there were no refunds, according to policy and in theory. However, in practice, if a patron complained loud enough, dropped the right names, or a combination of both, refunds were granted on a case by case basis. The Center felt the competition for the patron’s REPEAT entertainment dollar or annual subscription warranted a customer never going away unhappy. Considering how high maintenance these customers were in the first place, I would have to say much to my surprise the unofficial refund policy worked very well and was seldom abused.

  4. I said, among other answers, “when some or all of the performances are amateurish.” I wish to explain this answer. If this is a professional theatre that I paid a lot of money to go to, and the whole performance ends up being worse than a high school production, there may be a good reason to demand a refund.

  5. Get up and walk out in the middle of the performance if you don’t like it but don’t you dare ask for a refund. You paid for the performance that they choose to deliver, if you don’t like it that’s you’re own problem. It doesn’t matter what the show is.

    I’ve walked out of two professional shows and never once did I ever even consider asking for a refund, in my humble opinion doing so is wrong.

      • If I am to respect the arts then I expect respect if it is a professional organization and they blow it, I am not talking a missed line but shitty productions. Shit happens in live performances and that is fine but if it is a professional group and they mail it in then yes go get a refund.

        • Steve wrote, “if it is a professional organization and they blow it, I am not talking a missed line but shitty productions.”

          I’ve literally sat in a downtown Chicago theater watching a professional theatrical group perform Les Misérables where I thought it was a shitty performance and the person right next to me thought it was a great production and we argued about it for nearly three hours on the way home.
          I’m sorry Steve, but defining it as a shitty production, regardless of whether it’s a professional group or a community theatrical group, doesn’t warrant a refund, it’s way too subjective, you don’t like it – that’s tough.

          • I heard ticket purchasers to the best professional “Chorus Line” I ever saw complain that the show was lousy because there were no costumes, just street clothes, until the final number. Morons.

          • I have never had to ask for a refund but would if I felt that I was being duped into paying for professional and recieving a show that was not just enjoyable but poorly directed, acted, cast and just plain shit.

            I guess since I haven’t experienced in my opinion a show worthy of demanding a refund it is hard to point to exactly when I would.

            Maybe if the Hamilton crew had confronted the VP before intermission and mailed in the performance because they were too distracted with the whole thing.

  6. I only voted for “when the performance isn’t completed,” but I would add to that “or is delayed significantly.” I’m all for the idea that live theater is live, and the difference between a cast heroically rising to the occasion when things go wrong or going underwater is part of the risk. But if I plan to be there from 7-10pm or whatever, that’s when I will be there, and if the show is happening an hour later because of a traffic jam or something I might not get to see the show I paid for even if they eventually get things up and running. It may or may not be anyone’s fault, but I would probably ask for a refund or raincheck.

    (Obviously this would depend on how much of a delay and if I had other plans. Fifteen minutes is probably not a big deal, an hour probably is, between those is iffy.)

  7. From sounds of it it should have never opened in the first place! But their are far too many theatre people who think their work product better then it is. Then there are artists that keep tinkering to long. It sound though that the director should not have been given that title and theResponsibility that goes with it

  8. Well this is a fun one, with several parallel sets of competing principles.

    Buyer Beware vs Producers’ Reasonable Expectation of Professionalism

    Art vs Science – There is no hard and fast rule to determine if the Art is awful as Art or if it is awful as “science”. That is, I can look at Jackson Pollock splatter junk and know it’s awful art. I don’t have to explain it. But if I look at a 10 year old’s best attempt at the Mona Lisa, knowing the Mona Lisa to be good art, I can easily point out the 10 year old’s flaws… perhaps an unsteady hand, perhaps water colors shouldn’t be used on construction paper, perhaps the water colors were too dilute, etc.

    Intentionally Offensive Art as part of the message vs Legitimately awful Art -Some art is intentionally offensive and becomes difficult to distinguish if it is awful.

    Private Disgust vs Common Disgust (and I think this is key as the market tends to work). If I’m the only one walking out early and demanding a refund, maybe the problem is me. If 100% of the people walk out early and demand a refund, the problem is most certainly the production. Where in between 1 and 100% is the cut-off? At what point in the performance is there a cut off? Surely consumers owe it to the market to respond AS early as possible to junk products. There can’t be a 50% limit of discontentment to say “Here’s your refund” if 100% of the people stay for the WHOLE performance and then half demand a refund. Likewise, whose to say when a friend and I walk out and demand a refund and the theater says “sorry, y’all’re the only two”, but 15 minutes later, another 30 people walk out…?

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