THEATRE: Listen to the audience

The Independent's arts editor, David Lister, was asked to air the concerns of the consumer at an international conference on theatre and ticketing. He calls for a radical rethink at the box office
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I am not the first person to speak for the consumer at a national conference on the theatre. In 2001, Sir Richard Eyre did something similar. Sir Richard, one of the most influential figures in British theatre of the past 20 years, said: "To be asked to pay pounds 25 or pounds 30 to see a modestly successful production in the theatre, when you can buy a hardback book or CD for half the price, or go to the cinema for a third of it, just doesn't wash. On top of that, to be asked to pay pounds 3 for a programme and pounds 2 for a Coke that cost the management 12p might go some way toward explaining why the young are reluctant to go to the theatre. It makes us look ridiculous."

I was in the audience that day and enjoyed Sir Richard's challenge to the people who run theatre in this country. It was bold, provocative and alarming. And the people who run theatre in this country know just what to do with challenges that are bold, provocative and alarming. They completely ignored it.

So, it may be that speaking on behalf of the consumer guarantees that your words are heading for oblivion - because the concerns of the consumer are not always what the theatre world wishes to hear. In The Independent, I have run a lengthy campaign to encourage new audiences to the theatre, not least young audiences, by urging producers to offer best seats at cinema prices on Monday nights, when theatre audiences are traditionally low.

I was luckier than Sir Richard. The Lister Experiment, as the paper called it, had some success. It was gratifying, but since that experiment has finished, other aspects of theatre tickets and the theatre industry have begun to disturb me, things that, I feel, conspire to keep away new audiences and irritate existing audiences. One is the way so-called cheap seats in the gods are no longer cheap. In the West End now, it is not uncommon to pay pounds 25 for a balcony seat, the cheapest in the house. Whereas once you could pay a fiver and learn to love the theatre through cheap outings as a teenager or twentysomething, now even the cheapest price is prohibitive.

And how elitist and unegalitarian we have become, as a society. In 1912, the price ratio between best seats and cheapest seats at most West End theatres was 10:1. A ratio of at least 8:1 was the norm across Britain for 200 years. Today, people are treated equally. In other words, everyone gets charged high prices.

Most of all, I am increasingly irritated by the booking fees that seem to be attached to every theatre ticket I buy. Yes, every ticket, not every transaction - a morally dubious practice certainly; a legally dubious practice perhaps. One day, no doubt, we shall find out. But as if booking fees weren't bad enough, a new trend grew on the back of them - handling charges. When the days are short and dark and I feel depressed and need a laugh, I ring a West End box office and ask the person who answers the phone to explain to me what a handling charge is. Some say it is for taking the booking by phone; some say it is for sending the tickets out by post - to which I reply that I'll come and pick the ticket up. To which they reply that there will still be a handling charge. Presumably for literally handling the ticket as they pass it to me.

I receive e-mails and letters every week from readers - theatregoers - complaining about those booking fees and handling charges. When will the theatre and ticketing industries understand that consumers hate such extra charges? Ticket-buyers want openness; they do not want extra charges piled on to the face value of the ticket.

Here is this week's complaint. Dr John Lazarus, from London, wanted to book tickets for Acorn Antiques, starring Victoria Wood and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. First off, he was amazed that the preview he wanted to see did not have reduced prices. That's another insidious change of recent years, and one that makes a mockery of producers' claims that a show "isn't ready" for the critics.

Next, he wasn't thrilled by how expensive even the cheapest seats were (pounds 27.50). Then, he was disgusted by the handling charges: pounds 3.50 for the cheaper seats; pounds 4.35 for the most expensive. Could they hold two seats for 15 minutes, he asked, while he phoned his wife? No, they would not hold tickets, even for 15 minutes. Dr Lazarus decided not to go. What a way to treat a consumer. Is Victoria Wood, woman of the people, or Sir Trevor Nunn, champion of the people's theatre, happy that consumers are being deterred from seeing their show?

I would like 2005 to be the year that theatre puts the audience first. I propose a six-point action plan (see right): if the theatre industry puts it into practice, then more people, even those elusive new audiences, will come to an art form that I still believe to be the most dynamic, thrilling and enriching there is - on a good night.

The Europe Talks Tickets conference was in London

REVIEWS: pages 16-17.

PREVIEWS: page 18



Should be at cinema levels one day a week to attract young theatregoers.

Should never cost more than pounds 3. Simple cast lists should be free.

Should never be priced above pounds 10, so that young and new audiences can again see the cheap seats as their entry point into theatre-going.

Should be charged half price in all theatres.

Must always be staged at reduced prices.

Must be abolished, along with handling charges. They are iniquitous and immoral and enrage audiences. The price that one sees on a ticket must be the price one pays.