The Arc in Stockton recently announced they are offering their drama and poetry events as Pay What You Decide. Word is that a couple of venues in Yorkshire will announce similar plans in 2015. There’s movement. If not actually A movement.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the possibility of Leeds becoming European Capital of Culture and how all the events contained within should be Pay What You Decide. In the response to Arc’s announcement, and the response to my blog and the HUB’s Pay What You Decide programme generally, what is really clear is that some people don’t get it. In their rejection of Pay What You Decide it is clear that it is not understood what issue this different way of valuing performance looks to solve. It isn’t a financial issue. It’s a social political issue.
I’ve spent the autumn sitting in meetings where absolutely EVERYBODY assures me that local council arts funding is over, most tell me that central government arts funding is about to fall off a cliff and some are even certain that the Arts Council itself is only 3 years away from extinction.
However much of this is to be believed what is clear is that the subsidised theatre scene I love is changing. Radically. And there is no stopping that change. But at this point it can still go in a number of different directions.
Everyone from the Culture Secretary, the head of the Arts Council to pretty much anyone with a decent mind working in theatre thinks that the breadth and depth of society’s enthusiasm for theatre is lacking; whether that is desire of every marketing manager I’ve ever met to fill more seats, Stella Duffy’s brilliant blog here or Peter Bazallgette’s recent demand for greater diversity in our companies and audiences. Our relationship with wider society is hardly ideal. We’re being forced to change, partly (or at least justified) as a result of the weakness of our relationship with the vast majority of the country who don’t enjoy our efforts. In this tension there is an opportunity for a revolution. But what sort of revolution?
If customer is the primary relationship that theatre has with it’s audience then everything they do will be seen within the context of that. That prime relationship, the ‘norm’ will be between an organisation and a full price paying customer. We create a set of values in which too often our engagement programmes are valued because they create more of the norm, in which our front of house concentrates on rinsing the norm for whatever they can afford to spend on drinks and ice cream, and any deviation from the ‘norm’ is seen as an initiative, a loss leading scheme that looks to develop the ‘abnormal’ into future norms. The norm dictates how everything is seen, how the thing is understood.
Waitrose is a fancy supermarket. Everybody knows it. It’s understood. But still you can buy a tin of beans for 18p from there. But that’s not the norm for Waitrose, and it’s by it’s norm that the brand is known.
So when there are SOME tickets available at £12 but they are restricted views or only available on a Tuesday or there’s only 20 of them then it’s the £30 that is the norm. And it is the £30 that the experience will be known.
The other things? They are the loss leaders at the end of the aisle that designed to get you through the doors, they are special offers. The average wage in this country is £24k a year, non discounted tickets for our publicly funded theatres are beyond the reach of at least half the nation. Regular tickets for a publicly owned event is financially beyond half the nation.
I remember being in a discussion years ago, at Forest Fringe I think, where someone said it was immoral that people who had already paid for art products through their taxes were unable to afford to see them because of ticket prices. I remember thinking how impossible it was that anyone could be THAT naive. Well I’m ten years older and I’ve realised that there are worse things than being naive.
It is immoral. And, more relevantly, it’s one of the reasons why there isn’t as dynamic and as direct a campaign against the arts cuts as some of us hoped there would be. Because we’re not as relevant to the majority of the population as we could be. And the cost of theatre being beyond the reach of so many is a major problem. The influx of arts funding under new labour didn’t broaden the number of people who enjoyed the arts like was hoped.
At Slung Low we’ve experimented with free tickets in different ways over the last few years, from Converging Path shows throughout Yorkshire to the recent The White Whale. In some ways the end of those experiments was successful with 40% of the White Whale audience never having experienced theatre before.
But it is not the answer I hoped it would be because even as we were pleased with the outcome of The White Whale I was also aware that there was potential income that we turned our back on, there were plenty of people who would have happily paid good money for their ticket. I got that wrong.
I got it wrong because people should be able to support the arts that make their lives better, and it’s part of my job to help them do that. But not being able to support them financially should never stop someone being able to experience something that belongs to them.
The theatres belong to the people. They do. But it’s not instinctive to think so. We think the NHS belongs to us, the people. We think the BBC belongs to us. The protected forests of the nation are seen, predominately, to belong to us. But not the theatres. It doesn’t seem natural to think so. Making it natural, and widespread, to think that our civic theatres belong to us is the sort of revolution we need.
In discussion about this I am regularly accused of being naive. Most often it is said to be naive because without ticket prices as they are (or higher) we will not be able to run the theatres we currently have in the ways we currently have them. Okay. I accept that. But we can’t keep them the same, the cuts in train already will see to that.
And we shouldn’t. The world has changed. The banking crisis, the crumbling of trust in so much of the UK establishment and a profound shrinking of the size of the state means that the society theatres sit in have completely changed since 1997. I’m not talking about what plays we put on, or how we stage them. I’m talking about the very question of What Are Our Theatres For? If so much of our society has changed then theatres surely must have a different function now. And if there was ever a time crying out for a profoundly accessible central place that people could go to to be more than a customer than it is now.
This isn’t the argument of an impractical artist refusing to engage with the hard cold reality of income. The cliche of the artist uninterested in money.
It’s the opposite. I don’t want to spend the rest of my career dominated by a customer norm that have to be able to afford £35 a ticket to see The Seagull and spending my evenings asking bankers for money they should have paid in taxes in the first place. I am not pleading any artistic squeamishness about money, if money is going to impact upon the work I make, on the people who are going to be told about it, who are going to be able to afford to see it then I want to get my hands dirty with it.
I love that at every performance presented at the HUB one of the Slung Low team stand up in front of the audience and explain that the audience get to decide how much to pay at the end of the evening, that they should place the amount of money they chose in the jar at the end of the bar and that all of that money goes to the performing artists. I am not embarrassed by that speech, I bloody love it. Transparency. It’s part of our policy of sharing as much about the company’s money as people want to know in order to make what we do more understandable. And easier to appreciate I think.
I want a system that is available and open to all at the point of performance, regardless of financial situation. If one of the costs of that is a director standing up at the end of the show and saying, Thanks for coming, did you enjoy it? Can you pay for it please? then sign me up. That’s not refusing to deal with money. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect how our theatres behave, and what they do. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect what our theatres are for.
Why is the idea of our cultural leaders spending an increasingly large amount of time charming rich people already standard operating procedure, conventional wisdom but the thought of our cultural leaders talking directly to the audience about financially valuing our work laughable? The complicated question of who our theatres are for is wrapped up in this.
I’ve been in a number of meetings recently where really clever people have asked What are our regional theatres for? And really clever people have answered with points about skills development, about mixed income streams and about ensuring a national spread of live entertainment. It’s been a while since I heard anyone talk spiritedly about the changes in society that a relevant theatre can support. In the crisis currently facing the arts there is an opportunity to redefine what our theatres are for. I want a publicly owned system that places the audience in a different relationship with theatre-going beyond customer. I want a theatre network that offers inspiring, provoking live entertainment to all members of society regardless of their financial situation. I want our theatres to offer small places of sanctuary to our communities that are being beaten back by the forces of both national austerity and global economics. I want our theatres to be seen as belonging to all the parts of society, passionately held as resources of the common weal not to be buggered about with by politicians. Like our schools, like our GPs, like our television channels, like our National Parks.
And I think we take a huge step towards that if our tickets, across the board for every show on every public stage, become Pay What You Decide.