Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

All my controversial thoughts about how to run theatre right. Not wrong. Like you might do it. Yeah you.

So, here it is, strap in, I’ve got some truth bombs to release, I’m going to let rip, welcome to the fast lane of opinions, the deep fat fryer of fact, I may even use CAPS LOCK, or maybe Randomly Capitalise Words for little or no apparent reason, underlining get ready, CRTL + U, prepare to have what’s morally right smeared into you face, yes you, in this blog.

Are. You. Ready. For. Controversial. Opinions.

***silence from the crowd***

Are… You… Ready… To… To… Ermm… Hello…

Oh, wait a second, hold on a moment, it turns out I don’t have any controversial opinions about Theatre, Marketing or pricing, nor do I have any truth bombs to let off, I’m not even sure where the fast lane of opinion is.

Now obviously I’m being a knob – maybe you were lured in by the possibility of conflict – it’s exciting right? No such luck.

There have been a few posts of late with people slagging off how other people run their venues. I mean don’t get me wrong, everyone does it, it’s just rare it’s as up front on twitter. That said we’re closing in on Christmas, and sure, if I’d spent the last 9 months obsessing over panto sales I might release some opinion grenades too.. So… My take..

For all policies in theatre (and for the excitement levels you hoped for prepare for them to slide from this point onwards), and particularly in relation to pricing and how it’s done there isn’t, I don’t think, a right or wrong answer, it’s a hundred shades of grey, a complex mix that relates to and encompasses the audience demographic, the organisation, the type of work they show, the funding they get, the pressures they’re under from outside stakeholders and the aims and objectives of the company – that’s not even the full list.

Every policy (and almost every decision that is made in theatre, and, probably, in life) always, has people who benefit and people who don’t – all of which don’t just relate to audiences and accessibility but also the ability for an organisation to stay open, to pay staff and artists fairly, to meet funding demands, to make sure that the creative engagement work in the community (that is key and vital) still happens, maybe even the number of actors you can afford – that’s not even the full list.

We (subsidised theatre) should, absolutely, and unambiguously, be responsible to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the work on stage – we should be enabling the most vulnerable in our communities to access arts, culture and theatre. We should be doing our best to help those who need us.

But, in a world where arts salaries are not excessive, teams are often slim, arts people work regularly above and beyond and organisations operate to break even, we should remember that despite that decisions are, in my experience, for the most part, made with audiences at the forefront of the mind, but also bearing in mind that…

  • Accessing theatre is harder if the theatre is closed down.
  • Accessing theatre is harder if the subsidy is reduced to an extent where offering any discounts is impossible.
  • Accessing the arts is harder if to keep a theatre open all the education, access to the arts and creative engagement teams are cut.
  • Using the arts for real good and change can be impossible if engagement projects with the most vulnerable groups don’t happen.
  • Accessing theatre is harder if infrastructure is cut so that people don’t know what’s on, there’s noone operating the venue or noone is around to chat to audiences and be that reassuring face.
  • Audiences don’t always do what we want them to, don’t always think about the bigger picture, aren’t all socialists and want the best for society in general (but many do!).

What works for one venue mightn’t work for another, but it feels tricky to deal in absolutes, to say what one organisation does is wrong or right.

There’s a clarity question of course, decisions we make we should be accountable for – if we say tickets are From £XX we should be able to tell people how many tickets were that price, how to access them, why the prices work that way and, if people can’t get prices at that starting price then what other options are there to help those who can’t afford to access the arts if not instantly, then in changing and motivating behaviour. (I also suspect we spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on price as a barrier to engagement while the art itself gets off quite lightly…)

I spend my life desperate for simplicity, but simplicity isn’t always easy or, indeed the right solution when the overall picture and process to reach a decision is complex and nuanced.

I have huge admiration for the work of many theatres, from those who make decisions to have single ticket prices with discount/concession led additional access points and those who use dynamic pricing to offer a wider range of prices providing access points in a different way. Which is right? Who knows, possibly one of them, possibly neither, possibly both.

So there we go. I’ve said very little, had few firm opinions other than to say, context is important.

Here’s a final little sign off though – if theatre’s are being forced to act more commercially than ever before, if there are more in need than ever before, if we feel tired of always having to make compromises to get by, if we frequently have to get by, then maybe the problem is society, capitalism and the world in general.

So that’s depressing.

Night x

P.S. As a serious note, if you read this on twitter and decide to retweet it then make your tweet magical – along the lines of “You won’t believe what he has to say about Arts Marketing” or “The bad boy of Arts Marketing speaks again” or “So. Fucking. Nuanced” – Any of those will be fine x