Running your box office.
When it comes to your physical tickets, you have two choices. The traditional choice is to print tickets that you then tear or scan as audience members enter the space. (They'll need to keep some portion of the ticket as proof that they have paid and/or have seats if they need to go in and out of the theater, and you'll need to keep some portion of the ticket, unless you're scanning them, to keep an accurate count.) If you have assigned seats, this makes sense. But if you're using open seating (i.e. seats are on a first come, first served basis), many companies use programs as tickets. It helps the environment by cutting down on paper waste (after all, what are you going to do with those extra scraps of cardstock after the show?), and it's one fewer item to track.
For those printing traditional tickets (but not in industrial quantities), you may want to investigate http://www.printbox.com/ for free tickets. Or some small companies have been known to print generic tickets and then write the seat numbers on them as people check in, though that seems labor intensive.
There are many, many choices when it comes to how to sell tickets to your production: a physical box office, the phone, fax, email or a website. How many of these choices will be viable for your organization? Will you use your own systems exclusively, or will you allow third-party sales of your tickets?
Let's begin with the most direct and basic approach : the physical box office. In this case, patrons purchase their tickets directly at the theater. No matter what type of production you're running, a physical box office is a must, and at a minimum, you'll want it to be open roughly an hour before each performance. Larger operations may have extended or regular hours (for example, performance days from noon until curtain).
At the school level, this may be all you use for most productions. The box office will open an hour before the show, ticket sales will likely be cash only, and tickets are general seating, first come, first served. If you want to keep it simple, this is the way to go.
Should you accept checks or credit/debit cards at the physical box office? Most of the time, at the school level, the answer is no. Few box offices anywhere accept checks on the day of performance, though if you have a close-knit school community, you might consider accepting checks from families in that community. If there’s a problem, you’ll know where to find them. Credit/debit cards in the physical box office require technology, and unless your school box office handles a lot of outside events, chances are this won’t be practical.
Universities more regularly handle large events, and are more likely to have a setup that allows for processing credit/debit cards in their box offices, at least on their mainstages. But in most cases, if you want to accept cards, you’ll be using a third party online system.
For schools, check out Seat Yourself, a system designed specifically for high schools that has been the exclusive online ticketing licensee for the Educational Theatre Association for a number of years now (long enough to have worked out the kinks). At the amateur or professional level, an option is Brown Paper Tickets. Both systems add a small surcharge to ticket prices—and Seat Yourself also charges the producer a small credit card processing fee—on each ticket sold.
Of course, it's also possible to do it yourself when it comes to your box office. We'll discuss Box Office Software elsewhere, but some small companies, particularly if they are doing open seating (in other words, seats are not assigned), use a simple PayPal or Google Checkout system on their own websites. For example, the Los Angeles-based Coeurage Theatre Company, all of whose shows are "pay what you want," has a simple PayPal-based system that offers a series of payment amounts (e.g. $5, $7.50, $10, etc). Patrons simply pick the amount they want to pay, and they're whisked away to a secure PayPal payment gateway (where they can pay using a PayPal account or with a credit/debit card if they don't have one). Having used it several times, it's easy and painless for customers, but it does require that your group have a website, and that you insert PayPal's code onto it to set up their payment.
More coming soon!