Brown Paper Tickets leaves several theater groups holding the bag

A backlog at a Seattle nonprofit is costing Twin Cities performance companies – and their patrons – tens of thousands of dollars

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On a theater stage, four people of African descent stand in a living room
Frank Theatre's production of "The Convert" ended its run in mid-March just as the coronavirus was forcing theaters to close. The theater has yet to receive thousands of dollars it's owed by Brown Paper Tickets.
Courtesy of Tony Nelson

In mid-March, artistic director Wendy Knox was busily trying to manage the closing performances of Frank Theatre’s “The Convert.” Gov. Tim Walz had told Minnesotans to practice social distancing, so the theater found ways to keep audience members spaced far apart.

The final two performances went off as scheduled. It seemed that Frank Theatre could breathe a sigh of relief.

Until, that is, the money didn’t come in.

Frank Theatre, like several other theaters in town, sells tickets to shows through Brown Paper Tickets. It’s a 20-year-old Seattle-area nonprofit with reasonable rates. Usually within a few days of a performance, Knox will get a check for that night’s proceeds. By the time her show had closed, she had a stack of checks to deposit in the bank, totaling $17,000.

“And then I get this email saying: ‘Don't take them to the bank, please,’” Knox said.

Brown Paper Tickets informed Knox that due to the unprecedented situation with COVID-19, the checks would not be honored. But the nonprofit said it planned to begin reprocessing payments in the next two to three weeks. That was more than three weeks ago.

Knox has still not received the money she’s due, and she’s not been given a clear answer for when she might get it. She was forced to draw down her theater company’s financial reserves to pay actors and crew.

Nine people sing on a theater stage
Theatre 55's production of "Urinetown"
Courtesy of Theatre 55

Richard Hitchler’s Theatre 55 is a relatively new company that features actors 55 years of age and older. Unlike Knox, he has yet to build up a reserve. Brown Paper Tickets owes him $12,000 for the company’s recent run of “Urinetown.” He said the last time he called, he was told it might now take up to six weeks to get his money.

“I have actors who are willing to forgo their fees to make sure that Theater 55 doesn't go under,” he said. “But I also have, on the other end of that spectrum, I have musicians and other actors who are counting on the money because, you know, rent has come and gone, being due on the first.”

MPR News spoke with leaders of five performance companies in the Twin Cities that are owed money by Brown Paper Tickets, totaling approximately $40,000. That doesn’t count all the theater patrons awaiting refunds for tickets to canceled shows.

Marcela Lorca, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, had to cancel two weeks of sold-out performances because of the pandemic.

“And our audiences, as far as we know, most of them have not gotten their refunds back,” she said. “And that's like close to $40,000.”

For Lorca and the others, the delay in payment and poor communication from Brown Paper Tickets is not only creating financial problems for their companies — it’s straining their relationships with their most loyal fans.

A staff member who answered Brown Paper Tickets’ 800 number reiterated the company’s promise to honor all performances and refund all tickets to canceled shows. He couldn’t grant an interview, but said that the impact of the coronavirus in Seattle — where the company is based — and the thousands of event cancellations across the country created a huge backlog of work.

Meanwhile, multiple requests by MPR News for an interview with Brown Paper Tickets’ management have gone unanswered.

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