Theatergoing on the Cheap in London

Reply Fri 5 Nov, 2004 01:36 pm
from the New York Times

A Gamble Pays Off for Theatergoing on the Cheap in London
By Matt Wolf

London, Oct. 31 - Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theater here, knew it was a gamble. Slashing the cost of tickets for the Olivier, the largest of the National's three auditoriums, to about the price of a movie was either going to lure a whole new group of people who hadn't been to the theater before or it was going to lose a whole lot of money.

Now after a year and a half it's clear that Mr. Hytner has turned out to be a winner. The traditionally hard-to-fill 1,100-seat Olivier has lured in new theatergoers and averaged a 95 percent attendance rate during the cut-rate ticket season.

With Travelex, the world's largest foreign-exchange specialist, as the sponsor, the Olivier has been able to offer two-thirds of its seats for £10 (about $18). The rest of the seats are sold for $45, instead of the usual $65 for the top ticket. The £10 Season will end on Nov. 6 and then start up again in the spring when Sir Michael Gambon stars as Falstaff in Shakespeare's two "Henry IV" plays.

What's more, many in the audience are first-time buyers. One-third of those who last year saw Mr. Hytner's acclaimed production of "Henry V," which inaugurated the first Travelex season, had never been to the National, he pointed out . "I could not imagine overnight the audience would be so different, but it was, the minute they started coming for 'Henry V,' " Mr. Hytner said.

The 2,200-seat Royal Opera House has had similar results with its much smaller program of opera and ballet performances. During an evening performance of the Jules Massenet opera "Werther" in September, Tony Hall, the Opera House's chief executive reported that 98 of the 100 spectators allotted seats had never been there before. "If we're custodians or enthusiasts for these two art forms," he said, referring to opera and ballet, "then we also want to attract for the art form's sake new people to come see what we're doing."

The increase in Olivier audiences has carried over into the building's two smaller auditoriums. For the financial year 2003-04, total attendance at the National was 731,000, or 91 percent of capacity. That figure represents an 11 percent increase over the previous year and a 19 percent increase over the 1999-2000 financial year.

Now instead of losing $900,000, as was expected, the National is showing a tiny but significant surplus of about $90,000. The Travelex sponsorship outlay for the Opera House is exactly the same as for the National: £1 million over three years, or about $600,000 a year.

Obviously ticket price isn't the only reason. Quite a few of the eight Olivier productions that were sponsored were critically acclaimed. "Henry V," for instance, resonated during the early days of American and British troop involvement in Iraq. And Mr. Hytner's current production of David Hare's "Stuff Happens," about the relations between President Bush and Britain's Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, is one of the most talked-about shows of the season.

So what can Broadway learn from this? After all, at its most benevolent, Broadway tends to limit discounts to seats down front at various musicals - they are $20, for example, at "Rent'' - so audiences can peer up their favorite performer's nostrils.

Yet theater executives here and in New York agree that the program wouldn't survive the trans-Atlantic journey. As Nick Starr, the National's executive director and Mr. Hytner's No. 2, said, the "costs on Broadway were too high to entertain such an audaciously low ticket price."

Broadway productions typically cost millions of dollars. Yet even with a cast of 22, "Stuff Happens" had a standard per-production budget of about $135,000, in keeping with a stripped-down aesthetic throughout the April-to-November £10 Season. The lone musical in the Travelex program, this summer's favorably reviewed revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," directed by Edward Hall, cost $270,000, its budget supplemented by a separate National fund intended specifically for musicals.

"The moral," Mr. Hytner said, "is that the size of the budget doesn't matter; if you deal with the space imaginatively and successfully, everybody's happy." That list of people includes executives at Travelex, who had been focusing their sponsorship on sports until the National came to call.

"What the scheme is and how it's implemented has to be innovative, and clearly the £10 Season was," said Anthony Wagerman, the company's head of group marketing and communications.

Second and wildly important, theater is subsidized in Britain. Currently, the National receives 38 percent of its annual income, or over $25 million, from the government. "One of the reasons we wanted to do this is that it sends out the most fantastically clear message about what the National is for," Mr. Starr said. "It was built at taxpayers' expense, and we're here for public benefit."

Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, the largest theater-owning group on Broadway, said such a scheme would not work in New York, where there is nothing comparable to the National, much less to its pricing structure. London, he said, "is a wholly different culture."

"Put it this way," Mr. Schoenfeld added. "I have never seen that kind of commitment, if you will, in New York, where, to begin with, they've been talking about having a national theater in America since - who knows? - the days of the Revolution."
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Reply Fri 5 Nov, 2004 01:38 pm
Wow, I knew that theatre was subsidized in England, but I hadn't heard about this scheme to bring the prices down at the National. How wonderful that they've found a way to bring in new audience members.
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Reply Mon 17 Jan, 2005 03:18 pm
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Reply Mon 17 Jan, 2005 08:48 pm
Great article - thanks bree.
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