Analysis: Declining theatre audiences in the West End? It's the economics, stupid

As the Mayor of London joins the campaign for affordable tickets, controversy continues on what is the best approach to pricing
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The Independent Culture

The Theatre world –and the capital's politicians – have finally accepted that they have to offer cheaper tickets if they are to get new audiences, particularly young audiences, to go to the theatre.

The Theatre world –and the capital's politicians – have finally accepted that they have to offer cheaper tickets if they are to get new audiences, particularly young audiences, to go to the theatre.

Theatre owners and producers over the years have blamed everything for the visible lack of younger audiences: dearth of good new writing; the shape of the auditoriums; the ban on bringing drinks inside. Lately they have found new excuses: the state of London's streets, squalor, drunks, beggars, drug addicts and transport problems.

Convenient excuses but they do not chime with the correspondence I have had from theatre-goers who instead blame high prices, and poor views and facilities inside the theatres, and – a particular irritation – booking fees.

While theatre owners and producers are silent over booking fees – often charged not per transaction but per ticket – they are at last acknowledging that lower prices will bring in a new audience.

My own campaign, the Lister Experiment, urged producers to harness the vast film-going audience by charging cinema prices for selected performances once a week. Any short-term losses would, I suggested, be more than remedied over time by attracting a new audience.

The response was extremely good, with several producers charging £11.50, the price of a central London cinema ticket, for best seats and attracting many new theatre-goers. More than 1,000 people booked tickets this way for one performance of the Queen musical We Will Rock You.

The Lister Experiment continues, but yesterday a separate initiative showed that the quest for cheaper tickets is gaining ground. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, announced that, with the Society of London Theatre, he is putting £350,000 into a two-month, mass discounting scheme. Subject to availability, 75,000 tickets for West End shows will be on offer, at cheap prices, ranging from £10 to £20. For those under 25 or over 65, some performances will be as cheap as £5.

Mr Livingstone said: "People travel thousands of miles to enjoy our theatre productions. But not all Londoners are making the most of what is on their doorstep, in particular young people. I hope that through this discounted ticket promotion they will discover what an enjoyable and rewarding experience going to the theatre can be."

Whether using council tax payers' money is the best idea is another matter. Whether Mr Livingstone's scheme is actually reaching the young and the ethnic minorities he wants to bring in is also open to question.

Suman Bhuchar, a marketing consultant who has worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Royal Shakespeare Company and the productions Bombay Dreams and Midnight's Children, to make links with the ethnic minorities, is unconvinced. She says that ethnic minorities tend to avoid the West End, preferring the fringe and the independent sector. Bombay Dreams has been the first show to change that habit.

Of the Mayor's campaign, she said: "How is it going to be marketed to ethnic-minority audiences? Is this just an advertising campaign with cheap tickets attached? I don't think it has been strategically thought out."

There is unease too from Terri Paddock, who runs the most popular theatre audience website, She says: "I think the aim of luring in new audiences and reducing prices is an admirable one but my concern is that, though a lot of tickets will undoubtedly be sold, the new mayoral promotion will primarily be cannibalising an existing audience of dedicated theatre-goers based in and around London, with fairly short-term benefits.

"The money would be more usefully spent by making the West End a more desirable place to visit and by tackling the bigger image problem of theatre as a whole rather than specific shows. Theatre is exciting and sexy, but most of the population think it's not for them. Why? Theatre is and should be for everybody.

"If the Mayor really wants to address the issue of ticket prices, wouldn't it be better to look at how this could be done across the board, rather than for a few shows over a few weeks?"

Nevertheless, it does at least show a realisation that cheaper tickets are essential if the theatre audience is not going to remain stultified in one class and age group, destined for relentless decline.

Alison McCafferty, a PA from London, booked £11.50 tickets for We Will Rock You for herself and 11 friends, all in their twenties, under the Lister Experiment. She said: "A lot of my friends wanted to go but simply couldn't afford £45 and weren't prepared to sit right at the back. This way we could all go together in good seats and we had a fantastic time. For several of them, going to the theatre is a rare experience."

That realisation is spreading to actors too. Sir Antony Sher, who is starring in the RSC season of rarely performed Jacobean plays at the Gielgud theatre, says prices at many theatres are now prohibitive.

Jamie Theakston, the actor and TV presenter who has been starring in the West End in Somerset Maugham's Home and Beauty, said: "Theatre is in danger of pricing itself out of the market for young people, even young people who would love to go to the theatre. It's not just the front stalls that are too expensive. Sometimes even a seat in the balcony can cost up to £20. I have knowledge as a performer and a theatre-goer."

He hits on a key point there. Not only the top-price seats are expensive; those high up in the balcony can and often do start at £20. The balcony, "the gods", is where the young used to experience theatre as a cheap night out. It is no longer that, and the prospect for long-term diminution of the audience is alarming.

And top-price seats become more prohibitive. Musicals are £40 plus booking fees but so too now are some straight plays. David Hare's The Breath of Life with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench also has a top price of £40 – with a cast of two.

So, do prices need to be so high? Producers point out that for a typical straight play with a reasonably large cast they have to pay 17.5 per cent VAT on every ticket; rent to the theatre landlord of perhaps £9,000, a "contra", or maintenance and marketing, costs, of £11,000 to £14,000 a week; actors' fees of £17,000 a week. With a full house every night, on a typical straight play the profit might be about £100,000. Half-empty houses see a profit of £30,000.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, owner of 13 West End theatres as well as a successful producer and composer, is in no doubt that ticket prices must remain high. In a letter to The Independent last week he wrote: "Producers would love to see the price of tickets reduced but the awful truth is they really need to be increased if new productions are to be possible in the commercial, unsubsidised theatre sector. No producer wants to do this ... Frankly, I think that play producers such as Bill Kenwright, Howard Panter, Sonia Friedman, Robert Fox and the great Michael Codron should be canonised for philanthropy."

However, the acclaimed producer Thelma Holt, who has consistently brought challenging work to the West End, said: "Ticket prices should come down. Ticket pricing is extremely deceptive. If you look at a leaflet, it's off-putting. But there are concessions: two for one, half-price ticket booth etc ... it would be more attractive to an audience if instead of concessions, you made the general prices lower."

The costs of staging a show

Umoja, a celebration of African music, was performed at the New London Theatre, which is owned by the Really Useful Theatres (RUT).

* It performed eight shows a week to a maximum capacity of 900.

* Ticket prices ranged from £10 to £37.50.

* The producer paid a fixed rent of £12,000 a week to the theatre.

* The "contra" – the costs of running the theatre. including cleaning and maintenance – were between £19,613 and £25,000 a week.

* Equity actors' union minimum rates for performers are £331.52 a week. Umoja's cast is 40-strong.

* Merchandising staff were required to pay a 25 per cent commission to RUT.

Cheap theatre
tickets for

Cheap tickets to more shows are being offered under the Lister Experiment. Leading West End producers have signed up and the following performances are available to readers at £11.50, the price of a central London cinema ticket.

The new performances on offer are:

Our House: The Madness Musical (pictured), every Monday evening in January and February. (box office 0207 494 5080);

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Gielgud theatre (0870 890 1105) are offering Edward the Third, Monday 27 January, and The Island Princess, Wednesday 29 January.