It’s now four years since A Night Less Ordinary ended, and two years since the Donmar Warehouse stopped targeting youth audiences with discounted tickets. When the Barbican recently scrapped its FreeB scheme, then, A Younger Theatre got to wondering whether the age of cheap theatre tickets for young people was over. Yet conversations with representatives from a series of major UK theatres soon built up a far rosier picture: based on these, youth ticket schemes are not only very much alive and well, but are in fact stronger than ever.

Established by Arts Council England in 2009 to encourage youth engagement with performance art, A Night Less Ordinary (ANLO) offered thousands of free tickets to people aged 25 and under for shows at participating venues across the country. Superficially, at least, the scheme was a success, distributing almost 400,000 free tickets, bringing 6,800 people into theatres for the first time and encouraging even regular theatre-goers to try something new. 81% of participants surveyed said that the offer had made them more likely to revisit the theatre, while 88% said they would be willing to pay for future visits. Most importantly, it quickly became clear that ANLO was merely a starting point for something bigger: recognising the potential long-term benefits of developing youth audiences, theatres subsequently began investing in their own independent programmes which have continued to grow over the last few years.

Of course, while ANLO helped get things started, it was far from perfect, and it has taken theatres some time to iron out all the creases: “I think [ANLO] was kind of a learning curve for many theatres, rather than just a case of ‘how many tickets can you give away’,” said Ben Wooldridge, Press and PR Assistant at the Birmingham Hippodrome, which runs a first night discount scheme for 16-23-year-olds.

Susan Whiddington, Director of Mousetrap Theatre Projects and former member of ANLO’s steering committee, lamented the fact that not enough outreach had been done at the time: “There were a lot of repeat theatre-goers,” she said, suggesting that the scheme was not always on the radar of the disadvantaged and/ordisinterested youths it was primarily created for. “You can’t just rely on people to find out about these things.”

Her own organisation, Mousetrap Theatre, runs two separate schemes: C145, which offers £5 tickets to 15-18-year-olds, and WestEnd4£10, which provides £10 tickets to those aged 19-23. Mousetrap’s aim is very much to reach those who would be otherwise unable to attend shows, and to do this, it maintains an active presence at various freshers fairs and other events. While Whiddington suggested that ANLO may have worked better in the regions due to non-London theatres having better relationships with local communities, Ben Wooldridge observed some similar problems in Birmingham: “I think we got a lot of response because they were free tickets, but […] often, only those already in the know knew about it, whereas now, I think we’re trying to reach out and find new people, through things like our First Night Bloggers and our Youth Ambassadors.”

This drive towards expanding the schemes beyond providing discounted tickets is happening elsewhere, too. Many theatres now run youth membership schemes that help to foster lasting relationships with young people. Lucinda Morrison, Head of Press at the National Theatre, described this as “a very important aspect” of their scheme, Entry Pass: “It isn’t simply about cheap tickets. It offers a range of workshops, talks and events, designed to encourage young members to get involved and discover more about theatre.”

Laura McMillan, Marketing Officer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, agreed: “You don’t have to be a member to claim the £5 tickets – that was important to us. But 50% of them are bought by RSC Key members, and there are a lot of extras available for those who sign up.” As an example, she spoke about the theatre’s popular loyalty cards, which allows members to see six shows for the price of five. The RSC Key also sends out regular e-newsletters to members, as well as running a blog for young reviewers.

Far from losing interest since establishing their own schemes, those interviewed seemed excited about possibilities for expansion, each thinking individually about how best to improve experiences for their specific audiences. The National Theatre, for example, plans to make Entry Pass more accessible online, while the Birmingham Hippodrome hopes to develop workshops and career-oriented events targeting students from local universities and performing arts colleges. Simon Magill is Communications Manager at the Royal Opera House, whose Student Standby scheme pre-dates ANLO by a few years. Despite the ROH’s scheme having been in place for so long, Magill was enthusiastic about the future of the programme, which he hopes might be extended to include everyone up to the age of 25, as well as discounts for UK-wide cinema screenings of ROH shows.

“We’re always looking for new ways to do things,” he said. “There’s a lot more we could do with other organisations like Opera North, Northern Ballet and Scottish Opera. It would be great to have a kind of central hub connecting up dance and opera venues across the country, but obviously, things like that take time to get going.”

This would certainly be an ambitious undertaking, and with funding often difficult to come by, one might well wonder whether strapped-for-cash theatres really believe such projects are worth the money. After all, ANLO itself was curtailed in summer 2010.

The answer, however, was a resounding and universal yes, for reasons ranging from the fact that these schemes inspire creativity and open up avenues for future theatre practitioners, to the hope that young people will keep coming back as they get older, perhaps even becoming full adult members. “In a way, it almost doesn’t matter whether they come back to us,” said Magill. “It’s about getting them hooked on the art form.”

This feeling of investing in the future of performance art is shared by theatres which have lately changed their approach. Nick Adams, Communications Manager at the Barbican, explained how FreeB has not so much died out as evolved: “We recently surveyed FreeB members and found that very few (just 8%) managed to get hold of free tickets, with 90% of FreeB members saying they would be happy to pay a small amount to stand a better chance of getting tickets,” he explained.

Called Young Barbican, the theatre’s new scheme combines FreeB with other initiatives like Student Pulse and Student Tuesdays in the cinema, resulting in a much more comprehensive programme that offers 50,000 discounted tickets per year (compared with FreeB’s 30,000 over three years) across all art forms, including new-release films and selected events from partners like the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia. Already, the changes have proved popular: more than 1,700 members have signed up since the scheme was launched on 24 September.

If young theatre-goers take anything from this, it must be that now, more than ever, theatres are working hard to include, engage and inspire them. The industry is listening to young voices, so if you want to see a change, join the conversation: there is certainly no dearth of opportunities.

Photo by Flickr user Jamie Sheriff under a Creative Commons Licence.