Just the ticket - but there is more scope for attracting theatregoers

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The Independent Culture

This has been a very significant week for British theatre. First, a survey by a BBC news programme found that among young people ticket price was the most important factor in deciding whether or not to go to the theatre.

This has been a very significant week for British theatre. First, a survey by a BBC news programme found that among young people ticket price was the most important factor in deciding whether or not to go to the theatre.

And then yesterday, the Royal Shakespeare Company made the most radical gesture in its history over pricing. It decided to make 50 £5 tickets available for 16-25 year olds for every performance in its forthcoming London season. And these will not just be seats in the gods. They will be the best seats in the house. Key public sector workers will be able to buy tickets for £15.

Following the National Theatre's pricing system, which now features £10 seats in its Olivier auditorium, this means that - in the subsidised sector at least - ticket price is now seen as the key factor in attracting young people to the theatre.

It was not ever thus. Nearly two years ago, in advance of the National Theatre's artistic director Nicholas Hytner and the RSC's artistic director Michael Boyd, I launched a campaign in The Independent for cheaper theatre tickets for young people. The Lister Experiment advocated charging cinema prices one day a week to encourage a new and younger audience. A few West End producers took up the idea. Paul Roberts, a key producer of West End musicals, was the first, and he noticed that it brought in a new audience of first-time theatregoers. Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt also came on board. But much of the West End remained aloof, contesting that if young people could afford to go to football and rock concerts, they would not mind paying high prices for theatre.

That was wishful thinking. As the Society of London Theatre annual report said this week, 2003 saw dark houses reach a record level. Now, the RSC has realised new audiences need an incentive to see Shakespeare. They have to be wooed to the theatre. And price is the main incentive.

But it is not the only one. Michael Boyd must also look at other aspects of the theatregoing experience which infuriate potential audiences. I recently spent half an hour on the phone trying to book a ticket for the RSC's Othello before giving up. Box offices need to smarten up their act. Programmes are often too expensive and woefully uninformative. Free cast sheets should be the norm. And drinks and ice creams are ludicrously overpriced.

Then there are the outrageous booking fees and "handling charges". I checked with the RSC whether their new London home, the Albery, would be charging booking fees on top of the ticket price. The £5 young people's tickets will be exempt. But all other telephone transactions will have a booking fee on top. Rules of the Ambassador Theatre Group which owns the Albery. In that case, only two cheers for the RSC.

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