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Trying to Press On: Brown Paper Tickets leaves local theater artists holding the bag

Two weeks after she closed her last show, Gladys Cole reached out to Brown Paper Tickets looking for a check.

“I spoke with Chris S,” says Cole. “He said, ‘Hold on let me speak to my supervisor.’ He came back a few minutes later, and said ‘We are a little behind due to the COVID-19,’ but assured me my check would be in the mail.”

She asked if setting up direct deposit would make the process go faster and was told “Yes.” After completing the direct deposit form and emailing out her information, she waited another few weeks before contacting BPT again, because she still hadn’t received a payment. This time she didn’t get a response, and she hasn’t been able to reach anyone at BPT since then.

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Gladys Cole runs a youth theater organization called GCOLE Productions, which presents musicals and other programming with children ages 5 and up. Cole has been using Brown Paper Tickets since 2015 and this is the first time she’s had an issue with them.

According to the BPT website, they’re an “independently owned and operated” ticketing service based out of Seattle that can act as a box office for organizers of events like theater, concerts and pretty much anything you can sell admission to.

Up until recently, I’d never heard of anyone having problems with BPT, and I’d actually used them a few times myself without any trouble. Then Gladys, who in addition to being a colleague also happens to be a friend and an objectively lovely person, reached out to me.

She’s owed nearly $1,500 from the tickets sold to her last production, a junior production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” After doing some research, it appeared that people all over the country are complaining about not receiving payment from the company.

I should mention that I’m not an investigative journalist, but with arts writing not necessarily a priority at the moment, I offered to try and shine a light on this problem, since theaters and other event organizers are not in a good position to be out money from a company that’s basically supposed to act as a holding account for ticket sales so they can take a percentage of that and send the organizer the rest.

A statement from BPT reads as follows:

“We recognize the burden our system failure has placed on the artists and event organizers we built our business to serve. We apologize, and we are working to make it right.”

They also put out a convoluted explanation for the hold-up that would take a few pages to decipher, but it amounts to–

The pandemic hit and people were cancelling events and offering refunds, and we just put everything on hold.

Here’s why that doesn’t make sense:

If a company is offering to refund people who bought tickets to events that never happened, the easiest thing for BPT to do would be to cut checks for whatever tickets were purchased, send them out to the respective organizers, and let them deal with it from there.

That being said, BPT still hasn’t sent out checks to companies that produced and closed shows before the pandemic even struck. One of those shows is Carrie, the musical that was a collaboration between the Academy Players and me in Providence. I was shocked when I reached out to Academy’s artistic director, Rita Maron, to find out that Academy still hadn’t received the proceeds from that production.

“It just doesn’t add up,” says Maron. “Some of our tickets were bought in December and January for Carrie. It’s grossly irresponsible.”

The obvious answer seems to be that BPT was using funds that should have been set aside to pay for other things and now that’s caught up to them, but there’s no proof of that, and the company hasn’t responded to requests for interviews or made any further statements. At the time of this writing, the attorney general in Washington had received numerous complaints and was looking into the matter.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help theaters and other organizers all over the country who might never see the money they’re owed.

“I am already behind on payments to my vendors,” says Cole, who uses ticket proceeds to cover the costs of putting together a production. She’s planning on filing a complaint with the Rhode Island AG, but in the meantime, she’s on the hook for things like rent and royalties, which means all that needs to come out of her own pocket when money is already tight for everyone.

It’s worth mentioning that some artists did receive checks from BPT only to find out from their banks that those checks bounced.

The arts already feel as if they’re hanging on by a thread, and news of a reliable ticketing service imploding is more bad news that makes pressing on seem even more difficult.

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