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Is “Audience Development” Bunkum?

July 23, 2014

After reading a blog article on “”  from someone who makes a living studying it, I’m rapidly heading to that conclusion. The author basically concluded that subsided theatres get 46% of audiences who are very regular theatregoers. Commercial theatres around 13% – their audiences go once or twice at year, compared to 6 or more in the subsidised sector. Conclusion: everybody needs to “reach out” more, of course.

It’s an old idea, and now I’ve thought about it, I’ve finally seen the flaw.

At the end of my street, some wasteland has been turned into a football ground – using my council tax money, i.e. “public subsidy.”

I got a leaflet inviting me along to a “fun day” and to see a match.

Did I go? Of course not.

Why? I can’t think of anything (except if a close relative were playing) that would get me to watch a football match. Very cheap or even free tickets? Post-match talk? Celebrity on the pitch? A specially arranged game for newcomers? Nope.

As you’ve worked out, exchange “football” for “theatre” in the above, and it boils down to the same thing.

If someone isn’t interested in something, they are never going to go any further.

In other words, why bother developing audiences?

30 years ago, I was told that theatre audiences were white-skinned, grey haired and middle class.  They were. They still are… but it is a different lot of white-skinned, grey haired and middle class people. Those I’d first gone to the theatre with are now of course in that great auditorium in the sky.

Point is, people are still going if they want to go, and I’d argue it’s better to spend money on making them comfortable than trying to catch the interest of the disinterested.

Put another way, as the Lloyd Webber TV casting shows of 2006 onwards proved, and as Michael McIntyre and every other arena-filler confirm: if anyone wants to see something live, they’ll go. It’s OK. You just have to put something on that people want to see.

For the rest, those who are already reached, I’d say it’s far better not to put them off the purchase in the first place. Booking fees, dynamic pricing making a “last moment” decision too expensive to contemplate, expensive parking and drinks etc, etc, that alienate your regulars… those are the areas to think about if you want to generate audiences. Tidy the garden first, before you buy the field next door, to me, is the answer.

Mr Burns. Almeida Theatre.

July 16, 2014

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 12th July 2014).

A few months ago, I amazed a tweenager when I informed him that Shakespeare probably didn’t write the exact text we know today. What we know is based on actors’ memories, years after the plays were performed. Nothing was actually recorded at the time, so the best we can do is hope we got some of it right.

“Mr Burns” is all about the concept of presenting a memory, and its distortion over time. Sadly, it failed to convince me – through a total failure of logic. Sure, the setting may be “post electric,” when America has suffered a disaster which turns off the current and leaves survivors keeping morale up by recounting “The Simpsons” episodes (an effective and morbid contrast with written lists they all carry of loved ones whose whereabouts is lost; a clumsy device from author Anne Washburn, but you can let it go as it does work).

Anyway, 7 years and a 20 minute interval later, the same survivors are scratching a living performing those same remembered episodes – in bitter competition with other companies who are better resourced and who can pay more to other survivors who remember lines.

And there come the logic failures which fatally flaw the piece. First, we are asked to allow that in 7 years, no progress has been made to restore power – despite no indicator that infrastructure has been destroyed (the company are holed up in a rather nice studio in act two).

Second, in act one, the company hints at nuclear power plants exploding due to lack of maintenance… if that happened, they’d all be dead of either radiation poisoning or “total nuclear winter.”

Therefore, if humans had survived, so would “The Simpsons” episodes they struggle to recall; in both book and DVD form. The latter would quite easily be playable even on battery operated devices (batteries being something the author makes a point of saying are available).

The author actually admits defeat at this point, by SPOILER ALERT wiping out the cast in a terrorist attack. SPOILER ENDS.

That leaves act three. 75 years on, “The Simpsons” and religion have melded into a religious / theatrical experience (aren’t they all – I can’t have been the only one thinking “Oh God” at this point) which seems endless and undoes what might have been a fairly interesting tale up until then. We are left with a bunch of unknowns performing some very strange fusion indeed Interminable.

Quite simply, a play about memory in a time where everything is recorded, is built-in irrelevant. “The Simpsons” exists in various media for all time. Hence I simply couldn’t discern any intelligent developments in the writing, other than the old “if we don’t watch ourselves we’ll be extinct by some conveniently round-number year in the future” (and yes, even I’m old enough to remember when those dates were the future but are now way in the past. So much for all that guff).

Oddly, the first two acts at least are watchable. Tom Scutt’s designs are intelligent, Philip Gladwell a clever lighting designer allowing act 1 to be done by a single (gas) campfire’s light. Robert Icke does the directing job he is paid for, getting this thing on stage with a credible cast of survivors who seem almost real – Demetri Goritsas, Justine Mitchell and Michael Shaeffer in particular.

The idea itself – that popular culture will transcend human disaster – is a decent take on the old “apocalypse” saw. But the clumsiness of thinking, the third act and wasted opportunity of a satisfactory conclusion just left me feeling that this was almost, but not quite, a total waste of talent in every all round, alas.

Forbidden Broadway: Menier Chocolate Factory.

July 9, 2014

(seen at the afternoon performance on 5th July 2014).


I’ve been an avid collector of the CDs (and even vinyl) from this show for decades, but it’s only now that I’ve actually seen the show “live.” And yes, I’m glad I have.

The real joy for me was understanding how they stage the numbers I’m so familiar with on disc. Sure, the sleeve photos are a pretty good indicator, but now I really “get” what it’s all about.

The show relies to a great extent on costumes. That’s obviously the easiest way to deal with so many sequences that would otherwise be unstagable. A few props, mostly cardboard boxes and handheld items like canes and musical instruments are all that is required…

… well, that an excellent pianist and a quartet of the most talented musical comedy actors they can find. Sophie-Louise Dann could be mistaken for Elaine Paige any time, or anyone else she cares to impersonate. You’ll never see Anna-Jane Casey and Liza Minelli in the same room together either. Ben Lewis and Joseph Prouse (Damian Humbley not being Merman, apparently) also managed to hoist everyone from Hugh Jackman to Mandy Patinkin on their own petards too.

Highlights for me were the “Matilda,” “Once” and “Spamalot” sequences, but hilarious arrows flew in all directions throughout. I did object (unintentionally vocally, sorry) to a sick Apollo Theatre reference – far, far too soon, I felt; and there was a high proportion of old material in the show. Maybe a little naughty to present as fresh an old “Pajama Game” sequence, and I could swear the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” thing has appeared somewhere earlier too, albeit in slightly different form.

This is the show for musical theatre fans. No, not fans, “obsessives.” You do need to have seen every show parodied, and know your Broadway Theatre stars past and present to really get much from the show. There is a good deal for the more casual musical theatre fan, but those who get why ‘triple-threat tots’ are funny have most to gain.

It’s mostly very funny, always exceptionally well done. Well worth seeing. At least “Once” (provided you are not in that show, of course…).

Goodbye, Igor.

July 2, 2014

An old friend and work colleague was laid to rest last Wednesday, and I’m going to miss him.

Igor joined me in 2005, and was my tireless assistant until he retired in February 2011. During that time he did much of the work required to create the text of my book, and bravely fought a debilitating virus in the winter of 2007, which eventually lead to a transplant in 2009. He still helped out when I needed an extra hand, right up until last Tuesday,

And I’m going to miss him.

Still, 9 years is outstanding going for a computer, I guess.

Yes, Igor was the first major investment I made in Theatremonkey since I started the site in 2000. It finally became financially viable and technology caught up enough that I was able to hand back to my parents the “Windows 98” (“Stained Glass Windows” now) machine that I’d borrowed from them for several years, and get something good.

Trying to find a machine was a nightmare back then. The one I’d borrowed had been put together by a wonderful man, Don, in those early times when branded machines were pretty hopelessly unreliable and those “in the know” got folk like Don to set them up properly with something better. Don, sadly, was too unwell to do the honours for a second time, so I was stuck.

I actually tried – and I’m going to name them – Dell, first. That idea fell at the first fence when I put a simple question by phone (their website didn’t cover it) to them about maintenance and engineer help plans when things go wrong. Both are vital for a small business reliant on a single machine, and wonderfully provided by Don at the time for my current machine…

Questioning Dell, I found myself passed around 4 separate offices… none of whom actually had enough English to understand the question, let alone come up with an answer.

Later, I found out that a massive company I deal with were treated little better, and that “Dell Hell” really existed. If they do that to a PLC, what hope for me? Oh, and later I found out also that someone I knew in school had an executive job at the firm… and suddenly it all made sense. Say no more…

Anyway, at a loss, and knowing I didn’t need that other purveyor of the “here’s an expensive box, now go away” services, that sounds like a World Policeman (you know who), but that I needed something else, on impulse I walked into a local shop. As the credits in my book say, the rest is history. Steve meets Victor, Victor helps me design and then create Igor. Custom-made to do exactly what I needed to do, and (as a later demonstration proved) faster than a Dell of identical – at least on the box – specification. Not paying a penny for what I don’t need or want, full value for what I do – and a local, personal help service from the team who actually built the machine when I need it.

Neither Victor or Igor ever let me down, not even when Igor got that almost fatal virus (naming no names, but I don’t touch that motorbike-brand name-alike anti-virus software any more), nor when his memory started to slip and a new motherboard was rushed to the surgery.

Sadly, it was Windows XP being retired that did Igor in. Victor’s workroom is full of XP owners equipment that recently discovered the joy of a “Cryptolock” virus which renders the machine useless, plus a hoard of other lovelies that do almost as much damage.

To render Igor fit would cost more than a 10 times faster “reconditioned” replacement unit… so Igor 2 is being configured as I type; and Mandy, who replaced Igor in 2011, does a great job (definitely female: much more sophisticated memory, more complex, more efficient, tells you clearly when you are wrong) but it won’t ever be quite the same of course. Still, life moves on, and better to let the old guy go than suffer a painful finality, isn’t it.

RIP Igor, 2005-2014. Thanks for the 2Mb RAM, 250Gb Hard Drive memory.

Sexism On and Off Stage

June 25, 2014

There was, apparently, a lot of talk recently about a reviewer who made much of the physical appearance of a female opera singer. I couldn’t follow the story much, as it didn’t seem to get the coverage in places I read my news, but it happened.

And it got me thinking a bit. Theatre is an interesting mix of values. It’s inclusive, but men and women are “boys and girls” yet “Mr and Miss” backstage too.

In my own online opinions I do sometimes comment on the attractiveness (but never otherwise) of some of the cast. It doesn’t challenge any personal taboo or instinct for me to do so. Also, I do rather feel that a genuine compliment on appearance is acceptable from anyone, if it is kindly meant. That may not be the latest “P.C.” but it was how I was brought up. Off-stage, well, from experience, I’ve found that it can “make someone’s day.” So, I won’t be stopping any time soon.

On the other hand, something happened to me on the way to the theatre last weekend that I found disturbing, so I wanted to share.

So. I was on the tube, in a section of carriage with 6 seats – 3 one side, 3 the other. On one side, me, an empty seat and a mid to late teenage male. Opposite him, his female companion, two empty seats beside her.

Me reading newspaper, ignoring everything.

Male begins by telling female to “move her legs apart,” and then proceeds to mark each leg out of 7 (probably not bright enough to count higher). Then enquires about her state of underwear (if she is wearing any) and encourages her to sit next to him.

All this was loud. She didn’t answer some of his remarks, and they did at least get off the tube together.

As it went on, I got angrier and angrier.

Perhaps it could have been done for my benefit – waste of time, I’m not that shockable. Really, really, not that shockable. Simply because teenagers can of course be like that. All theatre, then, maybe? Still, that level of disrespect he showed her, and the crudeness with which she was treated… That’s not funny, I’d hope, even to a teenager.

It was the steady stream of vileness, delivered as if the woman had no feelings at all, like the “man” (note the inverted commas – he isn’t deserving of the actual title) was trolling her in cyberspace. That’s what really worried me. If that’s what a diet of internet material or something in his upbringing has lead him to think acceptable, it was deeply twisted and no joke at all.

Yes, I was angry at him. Enough to want to decorate the carriage with “hint of scumbag,” almost. Also to tell the young woman to seek help to boost her personal self-esteem and respect. Fact is, I know that if I’d ever talked to a single one of my female friends in that way (not that I’d have dreamed of doing so, of course), I’d be in great demand for high voiced opera parts myself…

…And yet, I said nothing. If it was their teenage form of ‘street theatre,’ does it matter? If they were not actually a couple, I know I would have intervened, I couldn’t not. Well, I hope I would. There’s lines and boundaries, and whether on the page or in the street, perhaps we all occasionally need reminding.

Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be

June 18, 2014

Seen at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East at the afternoon performance on 7th June 2014.


Well, to be fair, the Theatre Royal, Stratford East is VERY much how theatregoing used to be. A local audience totally committed to having fun. The actual make-up of the audience that afternoon was an Arts Minister’s worst nightmare – elderly, 99% white… but would probably get off on the grounds they all seemed not to be “upper class toffs” (based only an absence of dinner jackets that I could see).

Continuing the theme, the whole place was decrepit in the way West End theatres were when I started theatregoing 35 years ago. The toilets ponged, and my seat was actually on the ground. No, I mean, the seat had fallen off and was on the floor. Still, the amazingly charming staff cheerfully fixed it both before the show and again at the interval. I also had an incredibly charming email from the House Manager when I raised the matter. They really are doing their best until (hopefully) the National Lottery will help them improve things.

Anyway, so I wasn’t in the best of moods despite looking forward to this for months. A big fan of the original cast CD (surprised, as most folk are) at how rude the original title number was; I was expecting a lot. This show delivered, in spades.

Sensibly, the theatre chose to stage it as a “revisal,” adding “Living Doll,” “Do You Mind” and “Sparrows Can’t Sing” to pad out an otherwise glorious bunch of atmospheric “pre-Oliver” numbers.

Opening with me being propositioned by the gorgeous Vivien Carter (annoyingly, her lawyer now tells me she was only “acting”…) and the entire front stalls being engulfed by assorted Soho street walkers and the local constabulary out to enforce a new law to get them off the street, the show then moves into a “Spieler” (illegal gaming den) for the rest of the evening.

Owners Fred (Mark Arden) and Lil (Jessie Wallace) hark back to the good old days, while Red Hot (Christopher Ryan) is the comic turn as an old-time crook. Gary Kemp and Suzie Chard as old-time Bent Copper who falls for a working girl, plus innocent Sarah Middleton who stumbles into the mess of it all – and luckily stumbles out again – are the most notable of the performances.

Simply, this is a character study musical written years before such things were invented by the Americans with “Company” and “A Chorus Line;” and the result is a delightful reminder that things really have changed… but that the essentials of being British really haven’t. Hopeful, always witty, colourful in every way and with a helping of “let’s do it for ourselves ‘cos nobody else will” grit.

Sheer fun, well done and a really good afternoon out. End of!

Day Seat Etiquette.

June 11, 2014

I actually posted this recently on the “Whatsonstage” message board, but wanted to add it here as well, as I thought it raised an interesting question.

Somebody on that board noted that in New York, a paid “supervisor” keeps order in the “day seat,” sorry, “rush tickets” line. London, the “Book of Mormon” draw supervisor aside, has no such factotum. And we seem to cope.

Sure, there are those who abuse it, “holding” places for those too lazy to get up has to be a “no,” just not fair to those in the rest of the line. Still, I wondered whether the reasons we are still informal might include:

Queuing is our national sport. “A Brit, when alone, will always form an orderly line of one.”

We are adults, and don’t need supervision.

A dispute in Shaftesbury Avenue is very unlikely to turn into “Gunfight at the TKTS Corral,” hence no need for a member of staff for insurance liability purposes.

Broadway box offices are heavily unionised, so maybe a “line supervisor” post was agreed by local teamsters when the idea came in? (Be interested if a NY reader can comment on that!).

Staff costs in the UK are too high to hire an extra person unless ordered to by the union (see above).

We just haven’t got around to it yet or realised the publicity a fun supervisor can bring to a show – as the legendary “Rent” man did on Broadway for all those years.

Can you imagine all the Shaftesbury Avenue theatres having a “fairground barker” outside every night? I’d actually love to see that as pre-show entertainment, and it could become a real tourist attraction if handled right…


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