I don’t believe for one moment that there is a universal answer to this question nor do I believe that the points outlined in this article are the only factors which contribute to the issue. What I do believe lies at the heart of this matter is the perspectives of young people towards an apparent elitist medium.
Theatre in the eyes of young people is elitist, whilst they may not use this terminology in their everyday language their reasons for not attending theatre lies with this word and perspective. Theatre is ultimately elitist because it is expensive. The majority of young people perceive theatre to be closely linked with musicals, especially those long-running West End ‘all singing, all dancing’ shows. The West End boasts a healthy amount of musicals, but it also boasts a rather hefty ticket price where even the cheapest tickets are around £35 for often inadequate views of the stage. If young people perceive theatre to be related to the ticket prices and shows of the West End – then already the perspectives of young people on attending theatre is damaged.
Young people do not have vast amounts of money, they are in education, they might have a small part time job or in most cases rely upon their parents for a monthly allowance. To spend £35 on a theatre ticket is not a regular occurrence and ultimately attending the theatre becomes something more than an ‘ordinary night’ out. If theatre is seen as an event, or something which you have to rely upon the parental assistance to attend, it is pushed onto a pedal-stall for those people who can and do afford to attend regularly. Anything which is out of reach of your average young persons spending allowance is elitist.
Of course, none of this takes into account the subsided theatre which should attract young people because of its inexpensive tickets that are aimed at those who can’t afford top price tickets. But this all goes back to the perceived notion that theatre lies within the West End and musicals world.
There are numerous ways in which a young person can gain cheap tickets especially with schemes such as A Night Less Ordinary (ANLO), Entrypass, Access All Arias, and FreeB. This is all very well, but it’s getting young people to understand outright that there are these options available to them, it’s about educating them that theatre extends beyond the West End, and understanding that some of the most exciting work happening in theatre is in the subsidised sector. To put it simply, young people have to be taught to look beyond the commercial West End and the belief that it has to be seen as ‘an event’.
ANLO went to great lengths to engage with those who wouldn’t otherwise attend the theatre and regardless of the criticism the scheme has attracted through the hasty rollout young people did go and 72.8% of the allocated tickets were given out. The very name of the project: A Night Less Ordinary attempted to break down some of the perceived notions of theatre – most notable the perspective of theatre being a night out of the ordinary – an event or occasion. However, those engaged through the project are now being left to fend for themselves as the scheme ends early next year.
I also believe that we must look towards reality TV-shows that have been somewhat of a double-edged sword when it comes to young people and theatre. The medium of television and it’s wide-spread appeal is still prominent (although reports are suggesting that people engage more with the Internet than television), and is popular culture. The recent flurry of Andrew Llyod Webber shows such as How To Solve A Problem Like Maria? and I’ll Do Anything where contestants fight it out (or sing it out as the case may be) for a place as one of the leading roles in Webber’s next musical has done a lot for theatre. There were record box office sales at the shows when they opened including a vast young person following. They engaged young people in their homes to the possibilities of musical theatre, and encouraged them afterwards to attend the show – but they also made it clear that yet again theatre lies in the West End and the inflated ticket prices.
The problem that theatres will find is the pressure for their audiences to include young people will ultimately put pressure on their education and outreach departments. In some cases even the local theatre’s will be dealt a blow in the recent government cuts which see’s all local authorities budgets cut by 28% – and already councils seeing the arts as the easiest route to take. If you can’t attend your local theatre, what is the next best thing?
From a young persons perspective there are several factors that fuel the lack of attendance. The first being that of price, the higher the ticket price, the further we go at pushing young people away from the arts. They want cheap or free tickets and they want to feel like they are getting something for their money. “It isn’t cool” – well actually, it is cool, and it’s our duty to change this perspective. Another factor that seems to play a part is the educational factor to theatre – where throughout your schooling years you have to attend theatre trips for either English or Drama classes. Too many young people then associate attending theatre as an educational tool. So rare is it for schools to take their class to see a film at the cinema which remains abundance of younger audiences – it’s all about perspective. In case you wondering why I make such bold statements, this forum makes an interesting read.
Young people not attending theatre is a curious matter, that requires everyone involved within the theatre industry to do their bit in promoting their work. It requires more accessible and free resources such as A Younger Theatre to point young people in the right direction and to further their engagement. It will take arts organisations working harder to ensure that they make their venue and work accessible and friendly for young people – even if that is showing an outright support for them. It doesn’t have to cost massive amounts of money – it involves ultising those young people who are already engaged with the arts, to spread the news to their friends and family that theatre is for young people.
In an ideal world, commerical theatre would be more willing to direct their audiences – especially young people – to the subsidised sector, where there are ample opportunities for engagement and cheaply. In an ideal world, young people will be open to attend the latest hot new writer at the Royal Court instead of the block buster film at the cinema. In an ideal world, A Night Less Ordinary would still be going and working. In an ideal world young people wouldn’t just perceive theatre as the West End with musicals, but as a subsided sector too. We don’t however live in an ideal world, so we must do what we can – educated, evaluate and provoke young people to see and engage with the arts on every level.
If you are a young person and want to find out how to get the most out of theatre, and cheaper tickets see our resource here.
Image from the ‘If I Ruled The World’ Festival at the BAC.