Is the Face of Theatre Truly Changing?

Sustainability means eco-friendly, right? Lately, it seems that those words have become interchangeable. So, when thinking about sustainability in the theatre world we know that if theatre bars stop using plastic cups and advertisers make recyclable programmes, the industry is sustainable enough to stay afloat. In reality, sustainability in theatre is not limited to greenifying its spaces. It needs to achieve what the Theatre Trust calls ‘the triple bottom line’, meaning environmental, social, and economic sustainability. However, recently the theatre spotlight has illuminated a significant problem; that this art form no longer has a sustainable audience.

In a study of ‘2,000 18 to 30-year-olds’, The Stage found that a staggering ‘24% of respondents said that they never attend theatre performances’. It seems that the audience is aging, not changing, leaving the face of theatre wrinkled and grey. Therefore, we must ask, why are the numbers of young theatregoers declining?

Theatre is a Luxury

The reality is that theatre tickets are now too expensive for many young adults and those without a large disposable income. Theatre, like many art forms, has become a commodity. Public theatres, where audience members could watch shows for free, are a thing of the past. Comparatively, tickets for the 2019 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King John in Stratford-Upon-Avon cost around £52.50. The RSC offers quality and authenticity, with a prestigious cast, spectacular costuming and set design, and the works of arguably Britain’s most popular playwright. But many will never be able to afford to experience this. Thankfully the RSC are attempting to combat their financial barrier specifically for young people with their Key scheme, offering discounted tickets for 18-25-year-olds. However, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out ‘about 40% of young adults cannot afford to buy one of the cheapest homes in their area even with a 10% deposit’. If young adults cannot even afford the necessities, obviously more discounted theatre tickets are essential to making theatre accessible to young people.

It is not just British theatre tickets that break the budget. On Broadway, ticket prices have risen stratospherically, with Hamilton tickets selling at an outrageous $1000 on prime weekends. However, financial analysts at the Wall Street Journal believe that Hamilton should charge MORE – a ridiculous $2500 per ticket!

The financial inaccessibility of theatre isolates many, leaving avid fans “experiencing” the joys of their favourite shows through dodgy, illegal bootlegs.

Too Many Shows, Not Enough Quality

Forbes predicted that in the summer of 2019 ‘Broadway investors cumulatively [would] lose up to $111 million’ and that these losses would continue into 2020. The summer of 2019 saw fourteen shows close on Broadway. Why were these shows axed? Probably because many of them just did not deliver the goods …

Of these fourteen premature closures, the three with the most expensive capitals were King Kong (accounting for an astounding $36.5 million), The Cher Show and Pretty Women. All these shows share the fact that they are unoriginal musical versions of movies or life stories. They overcompensate for their unimaginative plot lines using the glitz and glam of theatre with excessive costuming and set design. Why would young adults want to pay extortionate ticket prices to watch the musical version of something that they could watch on Netflix?

However, Broadway can deliver. 2018 was the highest grossing year of Broadway ever, with more people attending shows than all of New York’s professional team games combined. This can be attributed to the box office boom, with phenomenal original musicals, such as Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton, and the triumphant play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. These box office sell-outs correlated with a rise in young audiences, which is not surprising given their content. Dear Evan Hansen is emotive with themes of mental health and the abuses of social media, Hamilton revolutionised theatre with its hip-hop and rap musical style, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an extension of one of the most popular book series of the 21st century.

Evidently, young theatre audiences are receptive to original creative endeavours. Therefore, directors, writers, and actors need to revolutionise their productions to suit their changing audience.

Making a Financially Accessible, Physically Immersive, and Emotionally Stimulating Theatre-land

So, what can theatres do?

Within the local vicinity, Exeter’s Northcott Theatre is helping to rebuild the bridge between young adults and theatre with their amazing U26 programme. This membership aims to make theatre financially accessible for young adults, offering tremendous discounts on theatre tickets (reducing ticket prices to as little as £5 or £10), and food and drink. Also, it provides free and discounted priority bookings for inspiring Professional Development Masterclasses. This theatre season, these U26 memberships offer discounted tickets for big name comedy stars, such as Josh Widdicombe and Russell Kane, and the stunning stage adaption of Private Peaceful.

Also, London has recognised that theatre can be perceived as elitist. So, National Theatre London provides an Entry Pass for adults under the age of 26. It is free to join and offers access to a selection of tickets, with most pricing at only £5.

Finally, Masterclass with its #InYourHands Campaign offers 16 to 30-year olds free opportunities to engage with the best in the theatre industry. It provides masterclasses, creative opportunities, and paid apprenticeships. These are wonderful steps forward towards making theatre a place for everyone.

Theatres must continue to do more to re-integrate young people in their audiences. We are the next generation of artists, directors, actors, and playwrights. However, if we are denied these inspirational shows, our passions will not be stimulated and theatre will diminish into an art form we read about in the history books. With schemes like the U26 programme and RSC’s Key Scheme, hopefully this will not be the case.

Miriam Higgs 




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