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Ask Lyn: Is theatre good value compared to football?

Ask Lyn: Is theatre good value compared to football?

Ask Lyn: Is theatre good value compared to football? cover photo on Stagedoor
Dear Lyn, the other week I saw former NT supremo and the Bridge’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner saying that theatre beats itself up too much about ticket prices and that it is both affordable and good value compared with going to a football match. Is he right? - Honor, Elephant and Castle

Dear Honor,

Mmm, I’m not sure about this one and whether it is helpful to set theatre and football up against each other in some kind of beauty contest. When theatre is expensive there is often a good reason which is that the show is expensive to produce. The costs of staging a one woman show and Phantom of the Opera are substantially different. Theatre productions do not usually have casts on footballers’ wages but neither can they reap the rewards from lucrative TV rights deals or merchandising. Once you’ve got your Harry Potter mug you don’t need another one in the way that football strips are often replaced by fans every year.

In any case while cost is a barrier to theatre attendance (I know plenty who would go more often if they could afford it) and a significant one, it is not the only barrier. Sometimes even when theatre tickets are given away free it is hard to raise an audience. I’d feel the same about being given a free ticket to a football match. I just know it’s not for me, even though I do occasionally get a glimpse of a big match on TV and think it’s pure theatre. But the culture is off putting. Plenty feel the same about theatre, where I feel—after years of practice in going—right at home.

Hytner makes the observation that while top end football match tickets and top end theatre tickets can be in similar price, politicians and the media do not go round saying foorball tickets are outrageously expensive. But that is because football is not subsidised by the taxpayer and because although it sometimes is (but not in the West End) theatre often exudes elitism. Sadly much of the data confirms audiences are skewed to those more privileged. Whereas as football is seen as being for everyone.

I suspect that participation has a huge amount to do with this: it is cheap and easy to kick a ball about in a park; it is harder to access a drama club or class. Particularly at a time when drama and the arts are being erased from the school curriculum. Then there is the fact that sport—particularly football—is part of practically every news bulletin and takes up pages in newspapers, digital and otherwise. Theatre and the arts seldom get a look in.

Even so I wouldn’t go round suggesting that poor little theatre is hard done by or indeed when it comes to ticket prices that theatre and football should be pitted against each other in the first place. Lots of people go to both. It’s not an either or.

I would suggest that theatre needs to be more honest and transparent about pricing and making it clearer to those who buy a ticket for a show where the money is going—I think that most people have no idea about just how much it costs to put on an all singing all dancing West End show or even a two-hander on the fringe. More than you might think.

If we talked about the true costs more openly then perhaps people would appreciate the bang they are getting for their buck. If theatres did that and also ensured through being more embedded and involved in their local communities that every child in the country got the opportunity through school to participate and see theatre, then perhaps attitudes will start to change. As it stands I think Hytner’s intervention was a bit of an own goal.

Cover photo by Kentaro Toma on Unsplash.

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Lyn Gardner

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