The problem with tickets: Are the needs of young people being addressed?

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In a month where two major theatre institutions have announced changes to their ticketing systems, the problems with the availability of tickets for London’s most popular shows triggered an interesting discussion between theatre blogger Dan Hutton and me. Is it a class problem? A money problem? Or is it a problem for everyone?

If, for instance, you fancy seeing Choir Boy (Royal Court), Last of the Hausmann’s, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or This House (all National Theatre), Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar or the ever-popular Matilda this week, you simply can’t. These are in-demand shows that are either produced by major houses or have star names attached to them. They sell out in seconds – or in the case of the long-awaited Goold/Prebble collaboration at the Cottlesloe, they sell out before the tickets have even gone on general release.

Historically, theatres have done very well at making tickets easily available to their members, to local residents (think the Lyric Hammersmith and the Soho) and to students and young people – such as the RSC Key and the NT Entry Pass – but the fact remains that it appears to be a lot more difficult once you hit the big 25. What do you do then?

I’d like to think that young professionals who are interested in the arts would pursue a career in the industry – an industry that is notoriously badly paid and increasingly reliant on donations from corporate or charitable foundations – and would continue to want to watch the best of British theatre in the second half of their twenties, and into their thirties. At the moment, the best shows simply aren’t affordable for this demographic: you end up paying a premium one way or another, either by donating your time or your cash for the privilege.

The Royal Court’s recent announcement of the ticketing system for Jez Butterworth’s new play, The River, throws the problem into perspective. To get a ticket to this production, you can go to website at 9am online or the box office at 10am on the day of the performance. Whilst Butterworth has said that he is happy for The River to go elsewhere after its premier, this new decision has made it rather difficult for anyone with a job to access the tickets, and barred anyone living outside commuting distance from seeing the show at all. Unless, of course, you fancy going down the Broadway route and paying people to queue for you – if you can afford such a luxury.

Perhaps the solution is in schemes that reward the most savvy (and, one would hope, most interested) theatre-goers. The Donmar’s most recent innovation is a fantastic step towards solving the problem. The Stage quotes Josie Rourke, Artistic Director, as saying: “Price is a barrier to access, there’s no getting round that. For me and for Kate, it’s very important to us to [give a] clear offer that says to people that you can get into this theatre, you can get in for a reasonable amount of money and you can get a decent view.” All you have to do is remember to buy your tickets two weeks in advance. Two weeks, ten pounds, front row. You just have to know the programme and set your calendar to remind you.

There is no point, it seems to me, in creating a young theatregoing population who are able to see Tennant’s Hamlet, Corden’s One Man, Two Guv’nors and Rylance’s Jerusalem when they are students, who then can’t see anything in the powerhouses of British theatre for the next decade of their life. It feels as though we have been lured into a false sense of theatrical security: we’re given the best value seats, but only for a few years, until we are unceremoniously barred from the theatre until we can become ultra-deluxe-premium-members who have access to priority booking, alongside a comfortable seven-figure salary.

I’m not saying that all good theatre happens at the National – I think in fact that the increase in the quality of fringe and off-West End productions is testament to the against-the-odds wonderful response to cuts in Arts Council England funding and a dwindling average expendable income. What perhaps should be taken into account, however, is that young people – all people – have a right to access the incredible productions and facilities that the funded institutions have. Rather than charging a returning concessionary audience more than a full price ticket – i.e. the ticket price plus anything you have to pay to make sure you get one – loyalty and proactive theatre-going should be rewarded.

Schemes such as the new Barclays Front Row at the Donmar represent a move towards finding new ways to fill the needs of an educated demographic that is hungry for more. We are the new Bright Young Things – and just because we’re broke, it doesn’t mean we’re not interested.

Image by Mark Kelley.