Our theatre will be free. Here’s why.

Our theatre will be free. Here’s why.

What is the purpose of culture? Since the announcement of our new theatre venue, where all tickets for performances will be free, we have received numerous messages in support of this ‘radical’ new model, with many wondering how we would achieve it and why this felt so different. A couple of messages have disagreed with the principle of this idea: claiming that free art devalues the product and undermines the industry which provides the framework for creation in the first place.

In constructing this model for our theatre, we went back to the question above, as a way of ensuring we were tackling problems afresh and not simply resorting to tired norms or archetypes. Clearly, no definitive answer exists, and each of us will reflect different values, principles and expectations in trying to answer it. Merriam-Webster offers six separate definitions for ‘culture.’ Joshua Rothman, of the New Yorker, writes that, ‘if anything, its value as a word depends on the tension between [the different definitions].’

For us, culture and its purpose are entwined. If culture is an escape, a reflection and an addition to daily life, as part of our need for connection, empathy, catharsis and understanding, culture as an output becomes effectively enshrined as a human right. If, on some level, we argue that we need culture in order to survive, in order to understand our own lives and the lives of others, to be able to hold those lives in perspective to one another against some idea of the ‘norm’, it becomes hard to argue that this right should be withheld on the basis of cost.

Obviously, the multifaceted prism of culture contains innumerable sides, and I’m not intending to favour one side over the other, or suggest that all of its numerous byproducts: which include everything from opera to video-games, from modern art to graffiti, are equally valuable to everyone in the same way. But what is shared is their essence as a fundamental part of humanity: without being essential, these various art forms, these expressions of humanity, would not have been created in the first place, let alone survived long enough for us to talk about them. We are all, in some way, creators and consumers.

We are also creators and consumers of capitalism, which has been entwined with culture since the former’s inception. Culture has been systemically gifted to some and withheld from others throughout history: I might request a classical movement or commission a self-portrait in a way you simply could not, as a lowly peasant to my medieval king. Many hundreds of years later, the very fact of my being the subject of the painting would make it extremely valuable on the commercial marketplace, or as an example of colonial conquest for a museum or private collection.

But should we really be viewing culture in the same neo-liberal lens in 2020? The theatre industry has been tackling this problem for some time, with varying levels of success. Recognising that ticket prices are generally high, the past 20 years have seen an influx of reduced ticket schemes for target groups (usually the 16-25s), often subsidised by large corporations such as BP or Travelex. Evidence is mixed as to the effectiveness of this: for every 16-year-old now able to afford, there’s a 26-year-old held back by other societal factors, where a full-priced ticket remains far out of reach. Whether these schemes reach new audiences or audiences who were interested in the theatre already, remains harder to evidence.

Pay-what-you-can (PWYC) schemes trialed by theatres have shown positive results in places such as ARC Stockton, where audiences tend to diversify their viewing habits and pay more than they would have done originally. But this system also contains inherent hurdles. For event organisers, whose entire production system remains the same despite the altered payment methodology, it is a large gamble to risk an entire show or a full-run on a PWYC scheme. As a result, PWYC is often reduced to a set night, normally a typically quiet evening, or a select number of cheaper seats. PWYC remains the ‘office-kitty’ of payment schemes, where paying nothing remains socially unacceptable (especially when you have to bow your head and walk past the director shaking a bucket on the way out of a smaller venue), and the business of paying becomes a shared, almost public act. Just as the most affluent are always keen to ‘share the bill,’ PWYC becomes a secret game whereby a coin makes more noise than a note and a fistful of them becomes louder than one. It still excludes the poorest.

Cheaper ticket prices haven’t been consistently linked to a more diverse audience, but to the same audience benefiting from an occasional cheaper night out. Elsewhere, comedy and music gigs continually reach a widely diverse range of consumers, typically in the same ‘intimidating’ Victorian venues where a revival of Oedipus may meet a punter’s reservations. And this doesn’t need to link to output: people will happily pay an inflated price for Michael McIntyre as they would for The Phantom of the Opera, where the latter clearly has higher overheads, even to the casual observer.

The reason consumers are happy to pay for these high-ticket purchases is that it links neatly to the concept of a ‘good night out.’ We’re only going to see Michael McIntyre once, so let’s splash out. We can only see Phantom in London, so it’ll be a good Christmas present for the kids: we can take the train and spend a night there. So far, so neo-liberal.

Theatre and neo-liberalism are so entwined it’s hard to remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. The Greeks designed venues and performances so that the experience was roughly equal for all. By the time of Shakespeare – who both understood the need for art and cannily knew how to make a few quid – you could literally pay to sit on the stage to be seen as prominently as the unfolding drama. In today’s world, we may pay hundreds of times more to sit at the front of a theatre, which is intrinsically linked with better site and audio lines, and splash out on a programme, some merch and a glass of wine expensive enough to feed a small family. Many of our venues have this system embedded into them as Victorian cast-offs, fancy bars line the upper stalls and the level of decorative architecture reflects the band of your ticket. Neo-liberalists would argue that this is no bad thing: you enjoy the experience more when you have forked out and made the effort.

So what? Huge amounts of time, energy and talent go into creating a play, and it is right that the people involved are properly financed and able to support themselves. Theatres have precarious finances at the best of times, with most shows needing to see a decent return at the box office in order for the venue to stay afloat. Lowering, or even abolishing ticket prices, is simply unviable, and the idea that the National could produce a show without ticket prices, for example, is simply naive.

Clearly, this is not a proposal which will work for all venues, or all types of offering. So where could it work? In my view, theatres outside of the M25 ring have a substantial community role to play, if only we can be bold enough to imagine these venues as something inherently different from seeing a commercial musical in the West End. They are located within communities for a reason, and this shouldn’t be just to emulate a London experience.

The reasons for this are two pronged. Firstly: artistic. ‘Regional’ is a term we don’t particularly like, but one which I use here for ease, as it does reflect an important reality within the cultural world. We cannot deny the fact that the London region consumes and attracts vast percentages of talent, funding and spending in the cultural arena, and that it is a fundamentally different marketplace from a theatre operating in a village in Cumbria, for instance. This discrepancy in funding, whilst arguably not right, is one we ignore at our peril. London theatres attract larger budgets, which attracts bigger stars, which attracts audiences willing to spend larger amounts. ‘Regional’ venues struggle to compete in this distorted marketplace, yet still have many of the overheads and similar pricing structures. Regardless of whether a star actor or director, or a larger set or bigger pyrotechnics make a better show, the public will perceive that they are getting more in return for their increased spending. As a result, audiences who may never attend their local theatre will buy in to the concept of the ‘good night out’ in London. Theatres outside of London miss out.

Secondly, theatre in Britain exists along two primary funding structures: private investment and subsidised. In the case of subsidised theatre, usually by the ArtsCouncil, whose mission is to provide the widest range of cultural access across the country, it creates, in theory, a different relationship between producer and audience than in a commercial, profit-making venture. If Webber or Macintosh can charge inflated prices for their private enterprises, that’s their business as long as people are willing to pay that price. That’s fair market competition. If a local theatre, whose primary budget is subsided by ACE, charges overly inflated prices, the system for evidence and justification is, in theory, more robust to prevent this happening.

More important than pricing structures is to return again to the question of what theatre is for. It is our view, simply as a reflection of cold hard evidence, rather than anything else, that an experience with your local theatre is, and should be, a fundamentally different experience from that of seeing a show in the West End. Touring models have long existed in some half-baked attempt to get a taste of the experience of the seeing a show in London, but this doesn’t answer the question of where a theatre should place its focus for its production model. For too long, theatres in the regions have attempted to emulate the London offer, with an artistic output that is indistinguishable from London, with the usual roster of Shakespeare, 20th century classics and perhaps one or two new works by local playwrights. In order not to miss out, they have to flip this model. Why? Because the longer a consumer views theatre as a special occasion, the less likely they are to attend regularly. Instead, local theatre needs to be necessary and urgent, cast-off from its hierarchies and assumptions, to become more akin with community centres than grand social gatherings of times gone by. Theatre should be a place to be, not a place to be seen.

In order to achieve this, we must re-imagine the model of production from the ground up. If tickets are to be extremely cheap, or even free, clearly we can’t produce shows with huge budgets. But nor should we want to. This returns again to the idea of making local theatre a separate, distinct experience. Too often, directors and artistic directors treat ‘regional theatre’ as a training ground for their entry into London. Too often, overheads at local theatres are so high because management wages far outreach the lowest paid. No member of staff at a local theatre should be paid more than the regional average. We need a model of consumption that reflects the model of production. Film budgets reach into the hundreds of millions, yet can still be consumed for £5. Clearly the film industry isn’t a beacon of good values when it comes to sharing profit, but it shows that alternative structures are a possibility.

I am not suggesting that we abolish certain types of theatre or that one is morally, or commercially better than the other. We need an ecosystem: and an ecosystem depends on healthy connections between all levels. I might be opening a theatre as a raving socialist who believes it is morally sick as a species that Jeff Bezos has enough singular wealth to end world hunger, but in the end Covid-19 has forced a reckoning for theatre to question its need and purpose. Local theatre must abandon its neo-liberal principles and must root everything it does in a deep and meaningful connection with, by and for the people who live within a thirty-minute trip of its building. Leaders must abandon their view that these jobs are training grounds for running more important venues elsewhere, and must stop taking grossly inflated pay cheques. For too long, cultural leaders have talked about engaging the community, whilst being paid huge sums of tax payers money, with a workforce similarly non-representative of or connected to, the people they are being paid to serve.

This is what leads us to view The PurpleDoor not as a profit-making venue, but as a social-enterprise, funded responsibly with finance from social enterprise banks. It means that any money we do get has to be reflected through genuine social return on investment, not through the box-ticking ACE so favours (which still excludes social-class as a measurement index), but through community led feedback and involvement. It’s why all members of staff, from management to bar staff, will be paid within a £5k bracket of difference. It’s why there’s no hierarchy in our seating structure: you sit (or stand, or lie) where you want. It’s why we’re reimagining how a production should be rehearsed. Yes, we could charge money for tickets, but the only justification for that would be to make more profit, and that doesn’t fit with the sort of enterprise, or people, we aspire to be. By taking ego and profit out of the equation, we can re-imagine theatre properly. It’s why we’re different and it’s why we’re going to succeed.

Leave a Reply