“The Donmar season at the West End taught me an unavoidable equation, which is that cheap tickets equals young people…It’s as simple as that.” Producer/Director Michael Grandage. Metro 6 December 2012 All Hail Michael Grandage for keeping accessible pricing in the public eye, but I’m sure Michael is hugely embarrassed that the media cult of him as ‘West End wizard’ [Sunday Times, 9 Dec] airbrushes out the vital role of regional theatre in building his platform. How Much? was a major project run by Sheffield Theatres from December 1998. Subtitled Sex, Violence, Brilliance, Shakespearethe original aim was to investigate the importance of price sensitivity among young people. We soon realised that price was by no means the only, and often far from being the most important, barrier to young peoples’ arts attendance. The first rule of price club is that you must never talk about young people as if they are all the same. expired sites . The project’s focal point was a scheme offering tickets at £3.50 to 16 to 24 year-olds. The initial programme on offer included:
- The Maly Theatre’s Winters Tale (in Russian),
- Ben Elton’s Popcorn
- Grandage’s production of Twelfth Night
I doubt anyone’s first thoughts on seeing this programme would be, “They’re dumbing down for the youth market…” The rationale for the choice of shows was that of all the reasons young people might give for not attending, poor quality and high prices wouldn’t be among them. The first wave of research with new young attenders showed, amongst other things, that they were willing to pay more than we were charging. So the ticket price was edged up to £10
It is difficult not to be envious of those young people in season two whose first experience of theatre was Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at the Crucible. I doubt any of them remember they only paid £10 for their seat quite as well as they remember a truly stunning piece of theatre with gripping performances from the company led by Joseph Fiennes.
So How Much? found that price is not an absolute constraint to theatre attendance for young people, but the uncertainty of what they will get in return for their money is. One of the key findings concerned young people’s leisure spend: over half expected to spend at least £45 per week on “nights out” (and remember this is in the late 1990s). Clearly then as now, many young people have the money to spend, but many choose not to spend it on the theatre unless say, as in the case of Grandage’s west End season, there is the ‘security’ of stellar casting.
Back in 1998 a New Audiences for the Arts grant of £350,000 over three years allowed Sheffield Theatres to take the Box Office hit from slashing prices, generating edgier marketing materials and changing ourselves and our theatres to be more accessible to young people. Through that public funding we were also able to run a comprehensive programme of action research and original quantitative and qualitative research supported by colleagues from Sheffield’s two universities. How Much? started as a marketing led audience development project in one of England’s regional producing theatres. It was fine-tuned in subsequent years, emulated by the National Theatre, the Donmar and now the Michael Grandage Company’s West End season amongst others. It is still the basis of keynote presentations at Arts conferences around the world.
The irony is that whereas risk-taking outside London provides the case for philanthropists to invest in starry West End promotions, as Grandage points out, “Regional theatres need subsidy to stay alive” I’d disagree with Grandage only to the extent that regional theatres need investment, not subsidy. An investment of £350,000 of public money nearly 15 years ago enabled How Much? to take risks that are still reaping benefits, influencing policy and provoking debate.
So what price public support in the next spending round for the ideas, the energy and the risk-taking of regional theatres?
Not to mention the sex, violence, brilliance and Shakespeare…