There’s one West End star, enduring, endlessly praised, and who will remain anonymous, but of whom I’ve never been fond. Why? Because I remember an early performance of theirs. An almost empty theatre, so the person decided to simply “go through the motions.” That was my very hard-earned pocket money spent, and I’ve never really forgiven them.
Last year, I attended one of the final performances of a West End comedy. It was clear that the cast were bored, and decided to muck about. I’m not talking the famous “muck up matinees” which are traditional at some shows. Those are done for the pleasure of both leaving cast and regular audience – and a lot of the changes are not really noticed by anyone else. On this occasion, the ad-libs and messing around were very much directed at us, and nearly spoiled a very decent afternoon out. Compare that to the spontaneous (though carefully managed) panto bit at “The Play That Goes Wrong,” and it’s a fine line between being professional and not.
For me, a professional performance is one done to the highest standard the company can manage. Sure, not every performer is the best, not every play is great nor does a particular performance always “catch light” due to the audience or cast never quite falling in tune with each other. Even in those cases, though, if the cast are at least interested in what they are doing, the audience is usually won round.
When they go beyond it – noticing and responding to an audience (Brian Conley’s greeting two children he’d spotted, Michael Crawford playing a performance towards a box housing a disabled person etc – that’s amazing, but there’s also the simple things. Reader Bob Pickett suggested one, from a visit to ‘Return To The Forbidden Planet’. He says, “We saw the Saturday matinee. Friday night’s performance had to be abandoned, after Frederick “Frido” Ruth (who has played Aeriel the robot with distinction over many years) injured himself performing a move he had done many times, badly enough to be taken to hospital.
The cast played the songs for the audience, but it looked like Saturday’s shows would have to be cancelled. Until another member of the cast, Joseph Mann, stepped up. He learned the entire role OVERNIGHT, and the whole cast came in for extra sessions to practice. Armed with a nicely-crafted “Instruction Manual” (the script in a file that fitted with his robot costume) he took to the stage some 14 hours after volunteering and gave a great performance, rarely checking the “manual” and receiving a deserved standing ovation at the end of the show. OK, he was not on roller-skates, but that would have been asking for a miracle!
I wonder how many other performers would have stepped into the breach under those circumstances?”
Professional? I’d say so!
Pantomime season ahead. Oh yes it is! The usual, and indeed perfect, introduction to theatre for generations of children, long before Nica Burns filled Nimax Theatres with school-holiday child-friendly fare.
It’s the one time I agree everything should be relaxed – knowing there is going to be noise and excitement. Saying that, when I went to the panto for the first time in years last year, the behaviour was better than I expected – and better than I’ve experienced at some “adult” shows.
Still, taking kids to theatre that is “age appropriate” has to be important. Long speeches full of complicated language bore some adults, so how will a 5 year old cope? And if you don’t want your bratty annoyance – er, little darling – loudly asking “what’s footsie?” to the amusement of those around (at you getting your comeuppance for bad behaviour as much as the comment), then it’s time to wise up, parents.
Some things are blindingly obvious. You don’t take your under 12 to “The Nether,” a play about internet paedophilia. Every sane parent knows that some subject matter has to be introduced later in life.
Similarly, if a show is “suitable for 3 to 5 year olds” then your 18 month old is unlikely to really “get” it – and your 7 year old will probably stage a revolution.
That said, I’ve also seen 8 year olds entranced by “King Lear,” and an 11 year old making more intelligent observations about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” than the adult he was with.
Only parents really know their own children, and can decide if the content is going to engage them, and if they know that it is, then it’s half the battle.
The other half, really, has to be preparation. Setting the scene beforehand is great. Make sure they know the story, play them the music… and talk about what to do (and not) in a theatre. Treat it like a classroom during a test or school assembly is the nearest comparison.
Be clever too about seats. Circle seats have steps between, so youngsters can see more easily over adults ahead. Go for seats with nothing in front, aisle seats, and arrive early to nab booster cushions (or buy one / stick a folded coat under the kid). If you can find out where the exit doors are, and you know your kid needs to make a fast exit sometimes – even better.
Don’t spend a fortune on tickets. Lay out £240 on an “Elf” ticket, just to have your kid squirm for three hours? You could go to your local panto for £15, and then to Disneyland Paris on the remainder of the cash.
Do, though, take your children to see live shows – it could change the direction of their lives as much as it did mine.
I mean, in selling a show.
Producer Harold Fielding went into factories to sell tickets for the first run of “Charlie Girl.” Cameron Mackintosh more or less re-wrote marketing rules with advertising agency Dewynters producing stunning logos like the “Cats” eyes and “helicopter face.” Then putting them 50 feet high all around the centre of Leicester Square.
Marketing budgets on musicals can be higher than the actual scenery cost, yet I feel the inventiveness with which they are used is falling.
The age of the logo is past. I’ve not really seen one for ages which has made me instantly associate a picture with a show.
A few brave stunts, like busking on the tube for “Once,” have been tried, but in general the well of inventiveness has dried up.
It’s all about the web now – but if folk are not searching for something specific online, they won’t find it. How many of you look at the adverts around the website page? Not many.
What we need is a little more Barnum back in our lives. The ballyhoo men who create a buzz. Where are the stunts, the tricks, the kidnapped duck and sudden leading lady vanishing?
More to the point, where is the personal touch? Who goes out to factories now to sell shows? Would you attend a “Tupperware / Avon” style party, hosted by a couple of attractive “resting” actors who can really sell you and your friends a few tickets, show you some shows on DVD?
The difference between a market trader and a dachshund may well be that one “bawls his wares out on the pavement,” but both make a noise telling those in the immediate surroundings that they are there.
Let’s get things back on the human scale, let whole communities share the message… let’s get marketing so that everybody knows “this show really is the business.”
So, last week’s posting attracted a fair bit of attention – particularly my idea of the “ATR” number.
The idea, to save scrolling back, is that if someone cannot use their ticket and the box office doesn’t allow re-selling, then the box office issues an “Authorised Ticket Resale” (ATR) number. That number allows tickets to be resold safely on approved STAR (Society of Ticket Agents) “secondary ticket resale” member websites. You can’t sell without it, and it would mean the tickets would be genuine and guarantee admission as they are sanctioned by the box office.
More important, the box office can keep a check on who is re-selling, and refuse permission to those simply doing it on a commercial basis – i.e. ticket touts.
In light of the “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child” ticketing event (almost as exciting as the plays themselves, possibly), surely those who are now reviewing ticket re-selling – and who actually purport to care about consumers – must think VERY hard about their next moves.
What happened with Potter: From June to October, fans had to register for the right to buy tickets during a 48 hour “priority” period, ahead of the “general public.” The register closed on 24th October, and on 27th October, us fans were sent a further email, telling us to register with the booking website an email address and password. Early on 28th October, we were sent an exclusive “one time only” link to a booking website, and could click that link before the 11am on 28th October “tickets on sale” starting wand was waved.
At 11am, all those online were given a random number – their place in the queue. As luck would have it, I drew 649 – a friend got 11,487. When you reached the front of the line, you entered your email and password, and had 14 minutes to buy tickets. To those who set up this system, I salute you all. It really was the best possible thing you could have done under the circumstances. Many congratulations.
Trouble was… within minutes, tickets started appearing on StubHub and other secondary resale sites that STAR wants to extend membership to, and at prices making even Dumbledore say something rude.
OK, so the Potter producers say they will cancel every ticket that appears on such websites, but can they? I hope so, but… And there, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the acid test of integrity for every would-be regulator.
I fully understand that the Government’s consumer advisors want a safe method for ticket buyers to be able to “mitigate losses” if they cannot attend an event – so rule out a “no resale ban.”
BUT “Harry Potter” will be putting a system in place to allow exchanges – consumers were aware of this before purchase. So, that is that one sorted out, there at least. No need to use a secondary site if, a millisecond after you booked, you realised you couldn’t use the tickets for next August…
… If an authorised return system wasn’t available, I feel strongly that adopting my ATR number system or something similar, it would prove the integrity aspect of wishing to regulate the secondary market.
The purchase of tickets for immediate re-posting at unfair prices will end, and by introducing the system, there will be proof positive that this is not about regulating ticket touting websites no matter whether they use that term – the correct one for them – or the politer “secondary market.”
For those who can make the decisions, this is the one, I hope (but sadly doubt deeply) they will make. If they do, it is about caring for the customer. If they do not, and simply say that now the “resale platform” is regulated, then they only care about profit and commercial interests of those who own that type of website. It is THAT simple.
It is probably just me and Bill Bryson (his latest book makes note of it), but isn’t the loss of the British sense of honour and “fair play” (particularly among those with any level of power to do good) one of the saddest of our losses in our country?
So, as posted on Friday, it has happened, and STAR – Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers – have voted to look at how they can bring Secondary Ticket Sellers, sites like Seatwave and Stubhub into STAR’s protection system.
One of the earliest things Theatremonkey.com was known for, was protecting readers against ticket touts (scalpers, to Americans). Paying £300 for a ticket worth £10 happened often, as it wasn’t easy to distinguish the good outlets from the bad.
As ticketing evolved the “STAR mark” became the way to distinguish the safe places to buy. Levels of booking fee and service were backed by an independent place to complain to.
But now times have again changed.
Ticket touting has been going “legitimate” for a while, with the biggest international ticket agency, Ticketmaster owning both “Get Me In” and “Seatwave,” and Ebay having “Stub Hub.”
The sites allow anyone to trade their tickets for any event, setting the price and getting it if they are lucky. Further, the sites have deals with venues to sell a selection of tickets themselves. Usually prime seats, with prices to match.
And now, they too could be covered by STAR.
My question was, bearing in mind that as a STAR member myself, I get a vote, was “Why?”
The answer I got was reasonable. While there are some laws to protect ticket buyers, they are not really enforced. As I was told, “it’s hard enough getting someone to help when you return home to find your household valuables tied up, your hamster badly beaten and your girlfriend stolen (I think I have that the right way round). So, in the absence of anything else, it’s up to the industry to ‘self-police.’ STAR have the experience, and the members with the knowledge to do that, so, they may as well be the ones to attempt to win the Wild West End again.
And yet, and yet…
… I’d actually still rather see efforts made to stamp out the secondary market than legitimise it. It causes pain to anyone caught out with bad tickets of course, but worse, it damages irreparably the image of the ticketed entertainment industry for consumers, and kills the desire to attend live performances because tickets are now hyper-expensive and hard to get, too.
Who wants to pay hundreds for a seat near the stage – when the price has been set by producers taking a look at what the secondary market thinks it can get for the seats, and deciding they want a slice of it? Worse, why should touts get the tickets ahead of normal people and then profit from it with a legitimated marketplace to sell in?
The argument about selling unwanted seats could be dealt with by a simple universal policy in all box offices: “you can exchange your tickets for another date of the same show, if seats are available. If all remaining performances are sold out, then you may have a refund. If can’t go, have a very valid reason and death certificate we could take into account; if you simply decide you don’t want to go, tough.” A genuine fan should be happy with that. No need to dispose of tickets via a secondary outlet.
If that were to be an option, however, can the box office not issue a “ATR – authorised ticket resale number” which STAR regulated secondary ticket websites require before listing the tickets? A double check that they are legitimate, and if it is linked to the customer’s payment card and account with the theatre, a maximum number of such permissions can be imposed and traders spotted.
For venues and promoters selling through secondary sites – STAR type ‘reasonable maximum fee added’ rules should apply, as indeed they do to credit card transactions. Only a fair extra booking fee should be allowed, the 25% theatre guideline, and no more.
For the public, the crux of the matter is how to prevent making legal the buying of tickets by them, purely for the purpose of resale for profit. If venues lose the right to decide whether or not a ticket can be resold… that means even I would happily buy up as many for a show as I can, then resell at a massive profit… probably… if everyone else were to… ouch. And there are a good few others with the same “ticket buying skills” who can get their hands on seats before most folk even know they are on sale…
Regulation is needed, yes, but it needs to be in favour of ordinary people looking for a good night out. After all, without a willing audience, who will buy tickets, however safe the booking process?
Ahead of next Wednesday’s blog about this, the following was released today:
Members of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR), the self-regulatory body for the entertainment ticket industry, have voted in favour of developing a Code of Practice for online ticket resale marketplaces.
Despite controversy around resale, reputable online marketplaces can provide a safe environment for people offering to resell tickets to transact with potential buyers. These marketplaces are therefore distinct from unscrupulous websites where customers are defrauded by sellers that do not have the claimed tickets to supply or even have a deliberate intention to take money but never supply tickets.
Chief Executive of STAR, Jonathan Brown, said “Customers deserve clear information about where they can buy tickets safely. STAR recognises that the UK ticketing industry has rapidly changed in recent years and today’s consumers expect greater levels of choice and protection. They need to know how and where they can buy tickets safely, whether they choose to buy them from the primary or secondary sectors. To increase clarity for ticket buyers, STAR will therefore develop standards of best practice to which we hope resale businesses that take consumer protection seriously will subscribe.”
STAR already operates a Code of Practice for the primary ticket market to which all the major names in UK ticketing are signed up. The new resale code will establish similar high standards of service and information as well as requirements regarding consumer protection and rights, particularly around the security of customer payments and guaranteed refunds if tickets are not supplied.
It is expected that the Code will be developed over the next few months before being presented to the STAR membership for consideration in the New Year. If the Code is approved and adopted by STAR members, resale marketplaces that can meet the demands of the Code would then be able to apply for membership.
The Government recently announced a review of consumer protection measures in the online ticket resale market and STAR looks forward to co-operating with that review. All STAR members are, of course, required to abide by the law. The new Code for resale will include reference to the specific requirements in the Consumer Rights Act and will be reviewed regularly to take into account any further changes in regulations.
Jonathan Brown added, “This is not about whether tickets should or shouldn’t be offered for resale or for how much they are sold. It is about pragmatically working to fill a gap in consumer protection by ensuring that customers are able to feel confident whenever they buy tickets and by improving standards even further in the legal ticket resale sector. We have to do all we can to be clear about the advice we give to customers to help them avoid illegal scam websites. We need to stop them from giving money to fraudsters who prey on fans desperate to obtain tickets for sold-out events without any intention of delivering.”
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
WHY IS STAR DEVELOPING A CODE OF PRACTICE FOR RESALE MARKETPLACES?
This is not the first time STAR has considered this development and a vote put to the membership in January 2009 came out in favour of opening STAR to ticket resellers. This followed an encouragement to STAR from the DCMS at the time to participate in the self-regulation of the ticket resale market.
However, given continuing uncertainties in the secondary market and the level of criticism and concerns surrounding it, the STAR Council took a pragmatic decision to postpone any changes pending a future vote.
In the intervening years, the online ticket resale market has become a more entrenched part of the live event and ticketing industries in the UK and is one of several recent “disrupters” in ticketing which have caused the industry to rethink how it does business.
In that time, and alongside detailed discussions and concerns in the industry and at Government level about the operation of the secondary market, many thousands of customers have become accustomed to trading tickets on marketplaces and some major venues and sports and entertainment events are working with resale platforms as official partners.
STAR’s focus is the protection of ticket buyers and customers buying from a ticket resale industry that complies with current legislation deserve high standards of service, information and an independent means of redress, in the same way that STAR and its membership already provide in the primary market.
WHO IS THE NEW CODE FOR?
STAR already operates a Code of Practice for its members working in the primary ticket market. This new development will only cover online ticket resale marketplaces, ie platforms that provide the facility for people to sell and buy tickets. One crucial factor in the resale Code will be a requirement that those companies operate a reliable guarantee to ensure customers gain entry to the event for which they have purchased tickets or, if they fail to do so, to refund the customer.
HOW DID YOU GET TO THIS POINT?
STAR’s relationship with resale marketplaces has been the subject of discussion for many years and it was something the STAR Council decided to return to following the introduction of the Consumer Rights Act earlier this year, which included some specific legislation for the sector.
A consultation period with STAR members began in June 2015 and came to an end with a question put to the membership. Members were asked whether STAR should develop a Code for online ticket resale marketplaces with a view to eventually extending membership to platforms that sign up to that Code. A clear majority of members indicated their approval of this development.
The Council and STAR membership are aware of the debates that continue in respect of ticket resale, including the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse and the forthcoming Government review on consumer protection measures in the secondary ticket market. The Code will look to draw together some of the key factors that distinguish existing best practice and to provide clearer information to customers and greater transparency and accountability in the resale sector. There may of course be more to add to this in the future in respect of outstanding issues to be covered by the Review and any new regulations that might follow.
The Code will be developed over the coming months and it is expected that the draft will be put to the STAR membership for their consideration early in 2016. The Code and any necessary amendments to STAR’s constitution will need to be approved by the existing membership before they can be implemented.
Should a Code be agreed upon, the intention is that it will be reviewed regularly to ensure it reflects any changes to best practice or regulations and particularly any legislative changes that come about as a result of the work of the current Government review.
HOW DOES THIS FIT IN WITH STAR’S NOVEMBER CAMPAIGN ABOUT SAFE TICKETING? IS THE TIMING DELIBERATE?
STAR has undertaken similar campaigns in the past to increase awareness of safe ticket buying through its members and there is no correlation in the timing between these two distinct initiatives – the development of the new Code and the November awareness campaign.
The decision by the STAR membership to move forward with developing a Code for resale marketplaces, which comes after many years of consideration, discussion and participation in debates around the secondary market, comes following the introduction of the Consumer Rights Act. It leads into a process that will take several months to complete and will not reach a conclusion until well past the date of the awareness campaign.
Collectively, we have an important job to do in helping to tackle ticket fraud by reducing the number of customers using websites operating outside the law and deliberately seeking to take money with no intention of supplying genuine tickets.
IS THE TIMING MEANT TO AFFECT THE GOVERNMENT’S REVIEW ON TICKETING?
No. STAR returned to the issue following the passing of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. STAR’s intention is pragmatic, seeking the protection of ticket buyers who deserve high standards of service, information and an independent means of redress in the same manner that STAR and its membership provide in the primary market.
STAR is very conscious that there are issues about the secondary market that continue to cause concern and to be discussed. The Government review is an important part of this. STAR will, along with others, be making a submission to the Review before 20 November and we look look forward to co-operating with the Chair and his panel in any way that we can. We recognise that the Review will be looking at concerns about the way the market operates and that this may lead to future regulatory changes. The new STAR Code will reflect current legislation, including the Consumer Rights Act 2015. If approved, it will be updated in future to include any changes to legislation that may take place following the Review.
WHAT MIGHT THE CODE INCLUDE?
The drafting of the Code will be a significant piece of work. The following are examples of what might be included but these would of course be subject to proper review to ensure consumers are best protected:
Offering the Customer adequate means of protection to include the payment by the Resale Agent of a refund (or, where available, the provision of replacement tickets) where a Customer: (i) does not receive the tickets s/he ordered in time for the event; (ii) receives tickets that do not materially conform to the description advertised by the seller on the Marketplace, or (iii) is denied entry to the venue through no fault of the Customer.
Prohibiting the listing of speculative tickets by sellers.
Detailing the Resale Agent’s policies and procedures if an event is cancelled or postponed.
Ensuring that they have adequate accounting and security arrangements in place when handling deposit monies from Customers.
Agreement to submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England/Wales/Scotland/Northern Ireland where the Customer is based.
Creating a trusted environment where customers feel confident in listing tickets for sale and making purchases.
“Know your customer” identification processes and procedures with respect to sellers that are extended financial credit, if any.
Terms should disclose that prices set by its third party sellers may be higher or lower than the Face Value Price of the ticket.
If purchases are final, disclosing that a Customer may not change or cancel their order.
Requiring that sellers comply with all applicable laws and regulations in respect of the sale of the ticket.
Advising that sellers must provide an accurate ticket description, including describing seating arrangements, Face Value Price, and any ticket restrictions
Describing a seller’s obligations to deliver a ticket in a timely and secure fashion once a sale occurs.
Describing fees and other charges that may be applied to sellers for ticket issues, including delivery of incorrect tickets, failure to deliver tickets on time or delivery of invalid tickets.
AREN’T YOU JUST LEGITIMISING TOUTING?
STAR’s purpose is to ensure customers are provided with clear information to enable them to navigate the legitimate ticket market and to ensure our members provide high standards of service and information through a Code of Practice. We believe customers deserve better information which will help protect them when buying tickets in both the primary and secondary sectors and divert them from handing money over to those deliberately setting out to defraud them.
Creating a Code around existing best practice within the legal operation of resale marketplaces and encouraging those that can to subscribe to that Code will provide a framework for any future developments and improvements as well as providing clearer information for ticket buyers.
STAR acknowledges that there are continuing criticisms of and concerns about the way the sector operates and remains actively interested in participating in discussions around these issues, including through the Government Review. Should there be any future changes in the law regarding the sale or resale of tickets, STAR would of course incorporate those in a revision to the Code.
WHAT IF EVENT ORGANISERS DON’T WANT THEIR TICKETS TO BE RESOLD?
There are systems available to help restrict the resale of tickets, should organisers choose to use them. These include, for instance, the considerable and successful measures taken by Glastonbury Festival, paperless ticketing and the exchange of tickets on arrival at the event with identity checks in place. Event organisers and venues can therefore make a decision regarding any restriction on resale, take appropriate action and control access. Doubtless other solutions will be developed in the coming years.
Event organisers should also consider what measures they employ to enable customers to return or resell tickets if they are unable to use them. A system of either authorised resale or the opportunity to cancel tickets and obtain a refund should be in place.
WHAT ABOUT SPECULATIVE TICKETING?
As noted above, our Code would specifically prohibit the listing of tickets for which there is no known supply or that are listed before tickets could ever be available for the event on the primary market. Marketplaces would be expected to check for such listings and remove them.
WILL YOU STOP THE HIGH PRICES CHARGED BY RESELLERS?
For good reasons regarding competition law, STAR is not a position to restrict the price of tickets or charges in the primary market any more than it would be able to do so in the resale market.
Transparency on pricing is certainly important and, in line with the existing STAR Code of Practice for the primary market, we would include the requirement – already detailed in the Consumer Rights Act – that the face value price should be provided as key information to prospective buyers.
The primary ticket market has responded to the fact that some customers are willing to pay higher prices, particularly for late availability for events that are selling well, by introducing premium and dynamic pricing. Market responsive pricing has therefore developed in ticketing in a way that is already familiar in the travel and hotel industries.
WHAT ABOUT TICKET BOTS?
‘Ticket Bots’ are computer programs that automatically breach existing obstacles such as ‘Captcha’ and procure tickets from the primary market when they first go on sale with the express intention of reselling them for profit in the secondary market. This can remove the availability of a large number of tickets from customers who should not need or be forced to seek tickets at a higher price in the resale market due to the unfair harvesting of tickets using bots. At present, there is no clear legislation relating to this sort of automated buying and potential skewing of the market for popular events. Action needs to be taken to prevent the use of ticket bots, or other technology with the same purpose, and to ensure the practice is illegal under either existing or new legislation. STAR is vehemently opposed to the use of this technology.
The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) is the self-regulatory body for the entertainment ticket industry. Charged with promoting excellent service and improving standards across the entertainment industry, STAR members work to a strict Code of Practice and a dispute conciliation service operates to help customers resolve outstanding complaints.
The Society’s many members include all the UK’s major authorised ticket agents as well as arenas, theatres, producers and promoters throughout London and the UK. Between them, members of STAR sell more than 30 million tickets a year.
Membership of STAR can be recognised by the use of the STAR kitemark and a full list of members is available at http://www.star.org.uk.
STAR is running an awareness campaign on 24 November to reach as many ticket buyers as possible with information about how to buy tickets confidently and avoid deliberate scams.
STAR is dedicated to ensuring high levels of customer service and ticket buyers who experience a problem with their purchase from a STAR member can contact the STAR helpline on 0844 879 4272, e-mail info (put the @ symbol here) star.org.uk or write to STAR, PO Box 708, St Leonard’s Place, York, YO1 0GT.
Last week, I saw my first “5 Star” musical of the year – the joyous “In The Heights.” It played a large venue – the King’s Cross Theatre holds over 500 people, yet an unconventional one. For those who have not been there, it is a tent over railway lines (used for “The Railway Children,” which shares the venue) behind King’s Cross station, in what is, or was, a sidings.
That brought back memories of last year, when I had the pleasure of introducing my theatregoing group to the joy of “fringe” venues for the first time. Far smaller than the King’s Cross Theatre, and less luxuriously appointed, but still not the gilded West End they were used to.
I eased them in gently, by “block booking” the entire venue so that they were spared the “arriving early and lengthy wait in line to rush in and nab the best seat first” bit, but it was still unreserved seating, a concrete space under a railway arch, no amplification, and a cast so close you could see every emotion as they worked their socks off to entertain us.
Truthfully, I found out later that they were as amused by us as we were by them. It was the first time the theatre had played host to an entire coachload, and there was much speculation as to the type of folk who would participate in that kind of event. Still, it all worked out in the end, and everybody (venue and cast included) declared the evening a raging success.
OK, so the theatre I chose that time was at the top end of the scale – The Union Theatre has a strong reputation for great musicals, and I knew that the seats were “proper” theatre ones and the sightlines were always excellent. Still, the lack of gilt trimmings, proper paper tickets, luxurious loos and, most important, huge sets, large band, orchestra pit and microphones surprised everybody in the party…
… and delighted them. For the first time, they realised what acting and theatre are really about. It’s about an actor engaging closely with a member of an audience, using their skills to become somebody else and tell that person’s story as clearly and convincingly as they can.
Without yards of seats, an orchestra pit and high platform between “us” and “them,” requiring amplification to be heard, my group suddenly realised how much easier that task becomes for both actor and audience member alike. Scarier for both, as every slip is more visible, every bored face harder to overcome as it’s close; but when it works, it’s pure magic. A proud father singing a solo about his daughter as 50 people hang on his every word generated spontaneous applause from some – the rest were too enchanted to even think of moving a hand muscle.
There’s hundreds of fringe theatres all crying out for audiences, and hundreds of coach parties looking to see shows in a way that won’t break the bank. To group organisers out there, I’d urge them to do what I did. Contact your local fringe venue, see what they can do, and give your group the gift of the unconventional. They’ll be glad that you did.