Theatre IS Elitist!

Luke John Emmett

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

Theatre is elitist. There, I’ve said it.
It’s out there and now I will try and explain what I mean and justify such a deliberately provocative headline before I get an influx of angry slapping jazz hands heading in my direction.
I have been writing and re-writing this post since the Theatre 2016 Conference (for more info see here) earlier this year. I wrote a blog post on the conference itself which gives a bit more of the context of my arguments (see here for more info).
The biggest issue with Theatre 2016 was that it was headlined as a conference for anyone who cares about the future of theatre. But the majority of people could not afford to go along and attend and no live video stream was made available meaning the event was closed off to those “lucky enough” to be able to attend. Those of us who were there did all we could to share info via Twitter so that others could keep track of what was being said.
When a conference organised by members of the theatre community out-prices many other members of the community you know we have a massive problem.
It’s therefore no surprise that many people have been speaking out about the cost of theatre tickets recently. There have been some shocking examples – Elf The Musical had top price tickets at around £140. Theatre is still seen as a luxury and not something for everyone and I find that a massive shame.
So what is the answer? Arts subsidy is becoming less and less. Local authorities are cutting arts budgets left right and centre and costs of creating productions and ensuring everyone is paid properly are ever-increasing.
Are discounted or cheaper tickets really the answer?
I spoke to one lady who was the Marketing Manager of a large theatre. She said that they tried offering cheaper/discounted tickets for productions. In her experience they gained very few new audience members. Instead what happened was that those who would normally pay top-whack instead snapped up the cheaper tickets. I would argue that perhaps it wasn’t marketed or handled as well as it could have been to attract those audiences, and manage who could book the tickets they claimed these deals were for.
One theatre where it has been successful is in Sheffield where they have opened up their dress rehearsals for the cost of £1 per ticket. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it’s great that people get the chance to see a show in an affordable way. It’s good for the actors to have an audience before they officially open. But, why should people who want to see productions be forced to see a dress rehearsal and not a real performance just because they cannot afford it. It feels slightly derogatory to me.
John Tusa in his fabulous book “Pain in the Arts” comments: “Never think that audiences are less intelligent, less curious, less informed than yourself. They aren’t. Never patronise them, never sell them short, never seek the lowest common denominator, avoid the middle ground, eschew easy attempts at bribery by cheap offers. Trust them and they will trust you, and may even come to surprise you.”
The biggest problem is that our larger organisations are very closed off. They have become something of a “club” for the white middle-classes and can prove quite impenetrable to those of us who are not members of “the club” yet. I say this as someone who has floated very much on the fringes of “the club” for many years. I’ve dipped my toes in their somewhat murky waters but more often than not you find many more doors are closed than opened.
This unfortunately leads to several inevitabilities. The main one is very little ever changes. When you have the same people in the same roles they tend to do things the way that they have always done them. Without fresh views and voices coming through things have a tendency to remain the same. A large percentage of those running our theatres are business managers. They are great at looking at what makes money or a secure investment but have very little interest in a dialogue with the communities that surround their theatres. As long as they are producing products that sell they are happy.
Another common practice is the add-on of community engagement programmes that are slapped on the side of large production houses because they need to be seen to be engaging the community more. They have numerous degrees of success. Many of them tend to only ever engage with the same few people though. The only way in my opinion that these programmes truly have an impact is if community is embedded throughout the entirety of the organisation and all its policies. Only by putting the community at the heart of an organisation can you truly engage with it.
There are a few theatres that have very successfully managed this. I think of Home in Manchester where the community were involved with every step of the planning of the organisation. Because their approach was to actively include the community in its programming decisions and workshop decisions the community felt like they were part of the theatre and that their opinions mattered which have proved massively beneficial with a diverse audience in attendance at productions there.
Sheena Wrigley again at the Theatre 2016 conference commented that we should “dismantle regional theatres and put them back together again”, and I think she’s right. It would cause some chaos initially but if things could be rebuilt with a more diverse make-up of people then things would begin to change. If you do not have people with new views or open to new ideas things will always remain the same. This of course will never happen but it’s an interesting idea and concept.
I really hate organisations that try to create top-down community programmes. They do not work. What right have you to tell communities what they should and should not be interested in doing? Why not instead work with those communities to see what it is that they want or need. Get members of those communities on your boards, speaking at your meetings, making decisions about your outreach programmes. The more buy-in you get from individuals from communities the better engaged the communities will become.
A large part of the problem is that our audiences and the make-up of our organisations only represents those who are creating or producing the work. It’s the old employing people for a job psychological mind-set. Psychologists have proven we are much more likely to employ people who resemble ourselves in some way. That subconsciously we are always looking for people similar to us. It is human nature and a very difficult thing to fight against. Using horrific stereotypes but look at the groups school children form. You have the "cool kids" who are perhaps into sports, the "cool girls", the bullies, the bullied and the general oddballs. We naturally flock towards groups that we feel comfortable within, groups that contain qualities that we recognise within ourselves.
If those people aren’t represented by the organisations and by the productions on stage then it can be an immediate barrier to making those people feel like theatre is relevant or accessible to them.
The theatre buildings themselves can be a barrier. We are lucky. We spend most of our time in theatres and the experience has become normal to us. Try and imagine what it feels like for someone who has never attended before. I’ve had conversations with people who say they won’t attend the theatre because they do not know how they are supposed to act, what they are supposed to wear, what they are allowed to do once they are in there, “are you supposed to talk with a posh voice?” These are all totally fair comments. Our playhouses are incredibly grand structures with elaborate decorations. They look rich and glorious but this can also be intimidating. Do we ever tell people what they should expect when attending a theatre production? Do you know of any venues who specifically say on their website what you should expect when attending? Things like turning mobile phones off. The fact that the lights will go down at the start. All basic stuff which we take for granted but that some people really do not know about. I tend to dress fairly casually myself and actively attend theatre in a hoodie, jeans and trainers much to the disgust of some audience members who take great delight in tutting at me because of it. So it’s as much about educating our audiences as it is our organisations.
Some shows have really helped to attract new audiences to theatres. The ones that immediately spring to mind are American Idiot and Harry Potter. For me I found it really encouraging that at the performance of American Idiot I watched in the West End that the majority of the audience were young Greenday fans, wearing hoodies and thoroughly embracing the show and experience. Harry Potter is one show I’m currently split over. I think it’s great that it has attracted a wide variety of new people to the theatre. But it has become something of an exclusive event, for those who can afford to see it. The sad reality is that the show will never be fully accessible to all those who loved the books and the films. Many people will never get to experience this production because they cannot afford it. The producers have taken some steps to try and help this situation by releasing a number of tickets every Friday at a cheaper rate but I still feel more could be done.
My final point is on education and the arts. A lot of articles have surfaced recently in the Stage Newspaper and Guardian about the rising cost of drama training and the decline in young people taking the arts at GCSE and A-level. I think the problem is more general than theatre and my personal opinion is that anyone who wants an education should be entitled to one. It should not just be those who have money that can afford to attend educational training of any kind. I think as an industry we need to do more to address the drop in take up of drama GCSEs and help highlight the many benefits to young people being interested in theatre. The worry is that if we don’t, our organisations will continue to contain only those who went to the same few named drama schools and could afford to be there. We can only promote and create true diversity in the future if we have a diverse range of people studying and interested in drama.
Young people are the future of theatre and at the moment we are failing them and the communities they come from. We all have a responsibility to help make theatre more accessible and things will only begin to change if we keep on putting pressure on those who make the decisions. Now more than ever we need to work together to fight for the future of our industry and be the changes we wish to see.
Stella Duffy and her work with Fun Palaces constantly reminds me of something. Not all theatre happens within buildings. Perhaps it's time to remember the roots of where we have all come from. The essence of storytelling as a community. Sharing ideas and knowledge through tales created to inspire, to challenge and to reflect the world in which we live not just the world of those who run “the Club”. If those of us on the fringes are excluded from the story then the industry will be worse off for it. And when the playhouses are empty because the next generation was excluded from entry I hope you'll come and join us on the outside, where we will welcome you as equals, because our door is always open to you.