Lyn Gardner

19th June 2018

Lyn Gardner writes about theatre for the stage and the independent and is recipient of the 2017 UK Theatre Award for outstanding contribution to British Theatre.

Looking around a theatre just before the curtain goes up, I’m often touched and a little amazed by the fact that so many people have made the effort to buy tickets, travel — sometimes from far away– and gather together in one place in a theatre to watch a show.

Particularly when they could have stayed home and ordered Deliveroo and watched Netflix in more comfort and for a fraction of the price. But they haven’t. At just after 7.30 on every week night in theatres all across the country thousands of people are watching a show.

In London, restaurants around the West End are heaving at 7pm and by 7.15 they are empty as everyone leaves for the theatre. It’s a reminder of the impact on the economy that theatre delivers, and why money that goes to support the arts is not a subsidy but an investment which brings not just cultural but economic dividends.

In the face of rising production costs which mean rising ticket prices, and stiff competition for people’s leisure time, theatres might do well to think about what more they might do to make theatre-going more attractive and easier for audiences. Going to the theatre doesn’t just cost money, it can be exhausting too for audiences who have to get up to go to work the next morning.

One thing is to look at is start times which is just what Matilda the Musical has just done, announcing that from September weekday performances will start at 7pm following a survey of audience members.

Of course, this brilliantly enjoyable show attracts a strong family audience and it makes perfect sense to gear start times to the needs of its audience. Soho Theatre, who cater for an entirely different audience, has been canny about playing this game for years: they programme theatre in two spaces early in the evening, and follow it with comedy at 9pm or later for the crowd who have spent the early part of the evening spending money in the bar.

That’s one model that works for a particular space in a particular location in London. It’s not going to work at Salisbury Playhouse. Nonetheless it does seem odd that theatre start times remain more geared to 20th century working patterns and leisure time than they do to 21st century ways of living and working and indeed changing transportation modes. In London, the night tube is opening up entertainment choices to people.

Talking recently to Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director at the Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman, she mentioned that audiences are increasingly exercised by running times, perhaps a reflection that in an era when people lead frantic lives, and sleep feels like it comes at a premium, that having a show down by 10pm is welcomed by many. That doesn’t mean you gabble Othello to get through it quicker,  but does mean that if you are going to detain people longer you have to make very sure indeed that the show is so good they won’t mind.

Even so, the shine can be taken off a great show by the hassle of getting home. In the regions many theatre-goers drive to a venue, sometimes considerable distances. In London audiences are reliant on public transport. Later end times are fine for those living centrally, or for tourists staying in hotels, but given that Purple Seven research shows how important regular homegrown theatre-goers living on the suburban routes out of London Waterloo are to the industry, maybe more flexible starting times might encourage some of them to go to the theatre even more regularly.

Start times are but one of a complex series of challenges facing theatre, and shifting performance times and days is not a magic wand. After all the NT abandoned its Sunday shows in 2016 as part of a cost-cutting drive as they failed to sell as well as other performances.

But here’s one idea: what about some theatres introducing staggered starting times across the week, which shift throughout the week in an easily recognizable pattern? So, Monday and Tuesday night performances would start at 7pm, Wednesday and Thursday performances at 7.30 and Friday and Saturday night performances at 8pm.  Everyone could find a time that suits their lifestyle best. Unless of course you are planning to stage an uncut Hamlet in which case you better start at 6.30pm every night.

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