Views: “Is Theatre Worth It?” – answering Mark Sands’ view of May 9th

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Gary Donaldson, Unrestricted Theatre’s founder, responds to Mark Sands’ question: Is Theatre Worth It?

Reading Mark Sands’ VIEWS article for Unrestricted Theatre posted on May 9th, “Is Theatre Worth It?”, I was intrigued by the huge scale of his question. There are so many ways of responding, but I will “dive in” by tackling it firstly from a financial perspective.

As Mark mentioned, his journey to and from the venue, and time around the actual performance gave rise to a number of financial transactions (train, drink, food, etc) that multiplied the financial cost of his “night out” and benefitted a number of associated businesses. This is true for all of us, whether visiting a “room above a pub” theatre or the National Theatre, we may well spend more (often much more) than the ticket price of the event.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So can we actually figure out what this means to the wider economy? A detailed study carried out for NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues ((NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues Economic Impact Assessment 2010-11, ERS (February 2012)) evidenced that

“for every £1 of public subsidy invested in NGCV, an estimated £4.27 return on investment is generated across the North East economy”.

This bears out the findings of earlier research conducted in the 1980s, commissioned by my late colleague Anthony Field who spent 27 years as Finance Director of the Arts Council (from 1957 to 1983), which found that:

“for every £1million of public subsidy in the arts and cultural scene the Treasury received back some £3million. These returns come from VAT on the sale of tickets, taxes levied on producing companies, performing artists, technicians and musicians, the returns from those who make up their audiences and the benefits derived from all the accompanying trades such as hotels and transport.”

So here we have solid proof that our local economies are boosted wherever the arts are present. This, therefore, makes the arts potentially more important in times of economic turbulence. One of the unforeseen benefits of the 2008/9 UK financial crisis has been that, in some senses, the arts have been taken back by younger people. By that, I mean that artists, no longer willing to play by the strict confines of the established order, are taking it into their own hands to produce and present theatre. As an example, the very talented actors who form a majority of the Front Of House staff at the Old Vic Theatre, encouraged by their enthusiastic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, have created their own company, called 1881, and are putting on shows, learning as they go along and putting their learning into practice by creating the very opportunities which were previously unavailable to them. The 2012 London Olympics also acted as a catalyst for much creative work which was partly unfunded and therefore almost totally reliant on voluntary contributions. Again, artists contributed for the greater good and in doing so created new opportunities for experience and learning.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In another huge shift in our technological landscape, the recent explosion in accessible media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and many smaller platforms) have in a way democratised media opportunity. It was interesting to note a very detailed study done by Jane Deitch for Stage UK about UK drama graduate destinations, which highlighted the fact that a growing proportion of graduates are taking unpaid work which is shared via Youtube or similar sites, as ways of getting their CV off the ground, and being seen. A parallel rapid expansion in crowdfunding platforms has meant that anyone can now get involved in supporting a project to achieve a degree of development, with the benefits more broadly defined as perhaps an exchange, or indeed a more altruistic approach in just knowing that you have supported “your” pet projects. So the benefits, the “worth it”s, are many and multi-directional for audiences, supporters, artists and venues. And they are growing every day.

It is also worth remembering what is not always apparent to us in the very selective approach of the big media groups. We have a proliferation of sports TV and web channels and print outlets in the UK, yet the absolute fact remains that more people attend events in the arts and entertainment in any one week than attend sports events in the same period. So once again, it’s official, the arts are bigger than sport, OK? Interesting when we see blanket coverage of Wimbledon and the World Cup and Euro football, rapidly followed by the next Olympics. Where is all the arts coverage to feed the needs of those who want it? Sky Arts. Is that all there is, people?

So we have examined the financial side, now what are the wider benefits of theatre? Focussing on theatrical productions, let us first examine “benefits” from the audience’s point of view. Buying a theatre ticket is a financial investment in the community arts provision, whether this is subsidised or not. It may also boost business for hotels, restaurants, and public, private and hire transport. Furthermore, theatre can be seen as a social event, often meeting with others to go in a group, or celebrating a special event such as a birthday or anniversary. The fact that a communal experience is being played out can also mean the opportunity to participate in a shared experience and a feeling of community, albeit fleeting, which can reinforce the fabric of social bonds. Businesses often use theatre as a teambuilding event, prestige enhancer or company perk, with proven value (or else it would not happen as often as it does!). Attendance at a venue may give marketing opportunities for exposure to other future events (via flyers, emails etc) in order to grow a future audience. It is good to see marketers learning from other types of organisation, by conducting audience surveys and linking purchases along the line of “if you liked that, you may like this”.

The benefits to the talents who write, produce, direct, act, play and sing are many. As well as to the performers, also for the lighting and sound teams, the stage hands and so many others upon whom the success of the performance may depend in some part. For all these people there may be the chance to earn money, as well as the vital opportunity to learn from the experience of practising their chosen craft. Not to mention the chance to engage with other artists in a communal way which may benefit them in a number of ways, including reinforcing their self-belief and resilience. The chance to be seen and evaluated by audiences, whether they be general public, friends and family, critics or agents is one which can reap many positive -if unquantifiable -benefits.

The arts significantly contribute to the texture and quality of life in ways that no other activities can. The arts can entertain and enlighten us, and in doing so have the ability to provoke every possible reaction from simple joy to thoughtful solemnity to outrage. They can stimulate us to thought, change our mindset, argue important points, shine a light on subjects otherwise thought untouchable, and generally promote a sense of being alive, of being involved in a society of people actively participating in life in all its richness and complexity.

So the bottom lines are these: the arts can pay back four times (or more) what they cost, and more people go to experience the arts each and every week than go to all sports. They also significantly contribute to the quality of life of the nation. The arts aren’t a luxury; they’re a necessity.

Is Theatre Worth It? Hell, YES!

Related Links:
NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues, Economic Impact Assessment 2010-11