Views: Is Theatre Worth It? by Mark Sands

After training as an actor, Mark Sands co-founded The Blueprint Theatre Company, and produced the 5 star production of FROZEN (Park Theatre) in 2015. In 2014, Mark co-founded Ardent Theatre Company with Andrew Muir launching with a co-production of John Van Druten’s FLOWERS OF THE FOREST at Jermyn Street Theatre, gaining 5 star reviews and an extended run. Since then, Ardent have produced PARTY LINES – an evening of 5 newly commissioned short plays written in response to the General Election; a reading of STRIKE!, a play about Northern Irish shopworkers supporting South African anti-apartheid efforts in the 1980s; to the first ever revival of a landmark LGBTQ play, THIS ISLAND’S MINE, opening on May 15th at the King’s Head Theatre in London. Mark continues to work as a freelance writer and producer, and is also part-time Finance Manager for Boundless Theatre.

I was recently asked my view on crowd funding, which is timely since we’ve just started a new campaign. I like the idea of people coming together to make a piece of theatre happen; it appeals to my ‘power of the people’ politics. However, when I view it from a commercial perspective it feels like selling shares. It got me thinking about subsidized theatre compared with the commercial sector.

Theatre costs money to make; there’s no getting round that. And nor should we. The Arts has always been a sector where the expectation to work for nothing – or rather for the sake of art – is commonplace. People should be paid fairly and correctly for what they do.

Which creates a dilemma. Somebody has to pay for it.

Let’s take one of our recent productions as an example. The performance was scheduled for one night only with audience capacity of around 200. The cost to produce it was £33,000 once you take into account the commission fees, the directors and actors, 4 rehearsal spaces for 5 days, script printing and marketing. To cover our costs we would have to sell tickets at £165 a pop; which would make for a very elitist evening of theatre.

How do we square this circle? It leaves us with one answer. Subsidy.

Companies like ours can’t make work without the financial goodwill of others, whether this comes from the Arts Council England, trusts and foundations or crowd funding campaigns. We could take a commercial approach and run the show for longer with a fixed, fairly reasonable ticket price. However, even if we sold tickets at £10 we would have to run the production for 2 weeks, which then adds additional costs for the actors, venue hire and marketing, which in turn means extending the run for another week, and so on. It becomes a very vicious circle we’re trying to square.

Which perhaps does lead to a question I was hoping to avoid: is theatre worth it? 

Offering myself as a guinea pig, last Friday night I saw a show. What I also did was buy a return tube ticket, a coffee and sandwich on the walk to the theatre, several glasses of wine and a bottle of water. The amount I spent as a result of going to the production was more than the ticket price.

The point I’m making is this: as a result of that theatre production, I also gave money to Transport for London, Costa coffee, the theatre bar and a kiosk next to the station. Multiply me by 300 and that’s a lot of additional money spent on other things than the production itself. So in terms of supporting other businesses and local economies, theatre has additional benefits. The flip-side, of course, is it also illustrates the true cost of a night out.

In writing this I’ve come to realise we expect a lot from our audiences financially. It makes us even more determined to push through a policy whereby audiences pay what they can afford to see our work so that there is choice: choice to buy a coffee on the way to the theatre, choice to buy a drink in the bar afterwards and choice to pay what you can for a ticket. It puts audience in the driving seat of how much they want to spend. The risk for us though is the chasm, between the cost to make the work and the income it generates, cracks wide open.

A commercial producer friend of mine told me he rarely accepts complimentary tickets for shows because he knows how much productions rely on that audience investment. He puts enormous value on the importance of audiences. It taught me a great lesson, especially since I’ve been someone who, in the past, has jumped at every chance of a free ticket. So for me, personally, that stops here!

Which brings us full circle to the power of people, or in theatre, the power of audiences. It’s you, dear audience, who hold the life thread of theatre in your hands. It comes down to this – how much do we value our theatre in this country, and do we want the diversity of performance that having both a subsidised and commercial model offers?

And this leads us back to the ultimate question and the one I was trying so desperately to avoid: Is theatre worth it? And how much are we willing to pay for it?

It’s a question only you, friends, can answer.

Text Copyright Mark Sands 2019