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

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

A CHARTER FOR THEATREGOERS

Prices

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker