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Ticket Prices from Outer Spacey?

March 21, 2012

This past week, actor turned Old Vic saviour Kevin Spacey has been widely reported as saying theatre is becoming a club for the wealthy older folk, due to ticket prices. The Old Vic’s £12 scheme offering 100 under 25s a seat for £12 at each performance is one of the few answers, he thinks, but otherwise, theatre risks becoming overpriced.

Sorry, but I’m not buying any of it.

For a kick off, unlike Kevin Spacey, I’ve been around London’s theatre world since I was a (very) impecunious young teenager. I well remember the early 1980s warnings that theatre was for the “old and wealthy” and would be dead in 20 years as a result… er… those very same currently “old and wealthy” were “young and broke” back in the 1980s, and theatre ticket sales are pretty healthy 20 years on – i.e. now.

Back in the 80s the only ways for the general public to get a cheap ticket were TKTS, student / Pension card, the “Upper Circle Trick,” knowing where decent ‘restricted view’ seats could be had (incidentally, the Old Vic has increased outrageously the prices of their great ones in the Spacey era… say no more) or negotiating with the box office in the minutes before the show. Newspaper offers were pretty much unknown, and of course the web hadn’t happened. The odd theatre ran a membership scheme, but nothing like the various discount clubs that can exist online now – and the myriad discount booths around the West End were also ‘not even thought of.’

Now, 85% of tickets are still sold at full price, but the rest are discounted – and ticket prices are often set to allow for that. If the West End producers were to co-ordinate marketing and get a very clear message across regarding where they ALL stand on prices and a unified policy on ‘discounts after an expensive start’ / ‘no discounts so don’t try’ / ‘only fair prices will be set in future’ then there might be a shift in public perception of the value for money they are getting.

Yes, production costs have to be covered by ticket sales. Indeed, costs have gone up from when I trained in the early 90s from £250,000 for a play / £1.5m for a musical to £1m for a play / £3.5m for a musical (or so) – above inflation, but a disproportionate amount of that is spent on “marketing”… i.e. messing with prices and messages… so it really is in producers’ hands to come together and ease a situation if they feel it worthwhile. 

As to teenagers going to the theatre. I went there a lot back then, and mostly sat in good seats for very little cash. Why? Because I was interested enough in theatre to want to go – and find out how to go cheaply. Most of my friends were never interested in theatre (a few humoured me by going once or twice, but never again) and it was only years later I found a pocket of like-minded people who enjoyed theatre enough that they went as regularly as I did.

So, Mr Spacey, what did those young people who didn’t want to go to the theatre do? They played sport, or musical instruments or painted or just watched TV.  They were not, and never will be, theatregoers – so why worry about them? The football and cricket clubs don’t care that I don’t participate in their product, why should you that youngsters don’t participate in yours? Nice bit of publicity for you, sure, but in terms of relevance to anything… sorry, but not a lot… I fear.

The simple fact is that if anybody is that interested in anything, they’ll find a way to take part in it – witness the millions who went to the theatre for the first time after “Sound of Music” was cast by television. As a youngster I needed cash for theatre tickets, and ways to get them cheap – I found jobs and talked to people and used my eyes to spot cheap seats (built a website and wrote a book based on the philosophy too, don’t ya know!). If I’d taken a blind bit of notice of the whinging and whining emanating from the industry back then about access and prices etc etc, I wouldn’t have bothered joining it.

As it happens, I did, and I’m lucky enough it pays me to do so – and I doubt the entire West End is going to stop any time soon. There’s enough young people interested in theatre to keep it going – they are the ones building their own websites, contributing to message boards and twitter and fighting 100 to 1 place at drama and technical training schools. Multiply that by their parents, siblings and own friends who may have an interest in theatre thanks to their enthusiasm, and I think things are pretty safe.

In other words, just like most things on this planet, they’ll continue pretty much whether we do anything much about them or not. It’s nice as always to see theatre in the headlines, but quite honestly, if you are going to spout “doom and gloom” tripe that has been unproven over many, many years, then you might as well not bother – though I do appreciate the material for another blog entry.

2 Comments
  1. martin ganeider permalink
    March 27, 2012 4:54 pm

    thats so true!
    why should the west end stop? there are so many people out there, interested in musical theatre! they are all in love with the theatre, and they use the “new” ways to communicate with others about their thoughts and favorite shows, or visit websites like the monkey page!

    theatre is still alive and always will be! the man from outer Spacey should read your blog!:-)

    • Steve Rich permalink
      March 28, 2012 7:33 am

      Thanks Martin, I very much agree!

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