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Jo Caird: Could TasteTheatre.com Change the way Londoners go to the Theatre?

TasteTheatre.com, a web portal linking 12 of London's producing houses, launched last night. It encourages theatre-goers to make their ticket-buying choices in a different way from normal: rather than opting to see a show at their local theatre, or picking a play based on its writer or star, punters select one or more keywords and allow the website's software to make suggestions based on the different types of theatre experience that match their search criteria.

You fancy something 'reality blurring' perhaps, that would be suitable 'for a date' this week – TasteTheatre.com suggests either Rough Cuts: The Victorian in the Wall at the Royal Court or Drawing Theatre: Creative Life Drawing at the BAC. How about a 'cool' show 'for families'? The software comes up with Ruddigore at the Greenwich Theatre and Chrildren's Workshops: Sunday Music Series for kids from the age of four to eight at the Tricycle.

The results of these searches are illustrative of the potential of the Arts Council-funded scheme to flag up the sorts of niche and limited run theatre experiences that might otherwise pass punters by. Only a small percentage of London's theatre events are covered editorially, either in the form of previews or reviews, and while the information is there in listings guides and on the theatres' websites, potential audiences are unlikely to find something they're not looking for. People signed up to these theatres' mailing lists would probably have heard of these shows and workshops but the likelihood is that you'll only be signed up if you've visited that particular theatre before, so new audiences are bypassed entirely.

In addition to the various shows the software finds to fit your requirements, almost every search also turns up adverts for the theatres' discounted ticketing schemes, as well as their bars and restaurants. This initially struck me as a rather cynical use of a website that purports to widen audience development, but on reflection, I can see the wisdom of such a ruse: if you're considering booking to see a show directly after work, the presence (or not) of an inexpensive cafe at the theatre where you can get a quick supper might be the decider of whether you buy those tickets or not.

But will it work? Could TasteTheatre.com actually change the way we make our theatre choices? Will such a scheme really tempt punters to trek across London to take a chance on a show they've never heard of at an unknown theatre rather than stick to their trusted local venue? Or is it just a shiny new marketing vehicle for the theatres involved?

My instinct is that theatre-goers will respond positively and the theatres involved (the Almeida, Battersea Arts Centre, the Bush, Donmar Warehouse, Greenwich Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Royal Court, Soho, Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Tricycle and the Young Vic) will see greater audience cross-over than is currently taking place.

This all depends, of course, on the usability of the website and how successfully it is publicised. So far the site is attracting 10,000 unique visitors a month, a figure it hopes to double within a month of launch (to put that figure in perspective, Whatsonstage.com attracts 569,000 unique visitors per month – Tastetheatre.com has a long way to go on this front). Out of the 12 theatres, however, only BAC, Greenwich, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Tricycle and the Young Viv have a link to TasteTheatre.com on their home page; the Donmar Warehouse has the logo, but no link. This is something that needs to change if these theatres hope to see changes in audience demographics.

From my own experience playing with search terms, I can tell you that TasteTheatre.com is pleasing to look at and easy to navigate. Once you've found a show you like the sound of, the click of a link takes you to the theatre's online booking page. There are also buttons on each listing that allow you to create Facebook events, add the show to various calendars, email yourself and others details of the show, and of course, post to all the popular social networking sites. It is these simple but clever details that make me think that TasteTheatre.com has a good chance of success. Getting visitors to the site is a challenge, but once they're there, I think they'll like what they find.


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