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Theatre as a luxury item, or bargain hunters’ challenge

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Kevin Spacey has set some discussions running about the price of West End tickets. Almost all the copy I've seen has been focussed on London, and there has been good coverage of major London sponsorship schemes to make theatre accessible to Under 26s and other groups. All good.

Speaking personally (i.e. without the benefit of marketing study or a look at the phenomenal statistics that Michael Quine and the TMA produce on theatre income trends) I sense that non-West End theatre prices have not changed that much. My memory of 20 years ago, running Buxton Opera House, is that we might charge £16-18 for a touring drama, and now at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds we charge £20 best seats.

And we, like so many theatres outside London's West End are absolutely determined to encourage U26 and new audiences to try a visit to the theatre, to take a risk at £8.50 for an advance purchase ticket for a play, so they will take a chance just as they might with a trip out to the cinema.

For me theatre should not be an exclusive “special occasion” in the way we promote it – because an occasion feels like something an average person might feel excluded from. I want someone to come and see a play because it's a night out, some fun, an experience…not something they need to dress up for, or combine with a candle-lit dinner for two.

So thank you Mr Spacey for gaining valuable column inches, as only a celebrity can, for this discussion to be aired...and let's expand the discussion to non-West End prices. And also let's celebrate the accessible pricing on the London Fringe.

My blog title had two parts. I'm also saddened by the “bargain hunter” mentality in the West End now. I guess the two go hand in hand. Set the ticket prices high, and then dump a load through last linute schemes or to club schemes.

Just like hotels there seems to be the rack rate, and the rate a person in the know can get a ticket for. However the simple fact of having the “in the know” rate again makes the act of getting a theatre ticket an exclusive act (and I should add I seem to be one of those people who never is “in the know”, and all my theatre colleagues tell me how they would never pay full price…you just ask x, or use y club, or join z).

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, like the non-West End theatre, prices were set as low as possible to sell to the widest audience at that rate – and not to hike the rates higher and higher just to sell them off at a bargain.

Maybe the marketing-man inside of me should love the complexity of finding the best way to ensure people pay the price they can afford, however high that is. But my sense is that the balance between luxury exclusivity and bargain basement has got out of hand, and is damaging the chance to attract new audiences to see live theatre.

If I'm out of touch, got straw-between my ears from too much regional theatre, or just plain wrong as a marketing man, then tell me quickly; Because I am currently working with my colleagues at Bury to try and reduce the top price, and tighten the margins between best/exclusive and cheapest/most affordable. The reason – to make it look less pricey, less exclusive, more accessible.

And PS – I can't prove whether I'm right or wrong at the moment!


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