Theatre thrives on 'pay what you can'

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AN EXPERIMENT by a south London theatre complex, letting people pay whatever they can afford for tickets, is seeing a dramatic change in audiences.

Packed houses of students, black people, unemployed and other groups which West End theatre often fails to reach, may force other theatres to revise their pricing policies. The West End admits it is in danger of becoming too expensive for people on lower incomes.

Figures from the Society of West End Theatre show that the average ticket price in the West End increased by 11 per cent last year to pounds 19, which is, according to the society, 'an uncomfortably high figure, given the harsh economic climate as we enter 1993'.

It is against this background that the BAC (formerly the Battersea Arts Centre) decided to have one night a week allowing audiences to pay whatever they could afford. It has not just attracted the unemployed. Celebrities such as Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and the pop singer Gilbert O'Sullivan have also turned up.

But what has been notable about Tuesday nights, which now outsell all other weekday nights in the three-theatre fringe complex, is the make-up of the audience. It disproves any theory that certain classes and age groups are not interested in theatre.

The experiment has also unintentionally produced a new method of rating shows. Some pay a couple of pounds one Tuesday and if they are tempted to see the production again pay more the next Tuesday to register their approval. With the official price for tickets pounds 7.50, this Tuesday's 'Pay What You Can' night saw sums as low as pounds 1 being paid for a performance of Josephine, a play about the Folies Bergeres star Josephine Baker. If people asked, they were advised that pounds 3.50 was a reasonable sum.

Vishni Verada, a 21-year-old student and a regular visitor on Tuesdays, said that she paid pounds 2.50 and would not go to the theatre otherwise as she could not afford it. But after one show she particularly liked, she returned the next week and paid pounds 5.

Charles Hallsworth, a self-employed builder who was there with his wife and paid pounds 3 per ticket, said: 'We would like to go to the theatre more often, but this is the only night we can afford.'

Paul Blackman, artistic director of the BAC, said: 'As the recession has set in, the queues have got longer and longer on Tuesdays. I don't see why opera and West End theatre shouldn't do it. My philosophy is that students are our future audience and we have to get them to know the venue and the work. But it has turned out that the whole Tuesday night audience is a different mixture and the rapport between actors and audience is always stronger on that night.'

Susan Whiddington, of the Society of West End Theatre, said she did not see any chance of West End producers following the BAC lead as they would fear people would always 'purchase at the low end of the market whatever they could really afford'.

(Photograph omitted)