Where are all the working class audiences?
We've been debating a basic principle for Ardent - how to make tickets genuinely affordable to those on low incomes? It's a simple idea: Anyone, no matter what their financial circumstances, should be able to see our work. If we want to do a play about striking shop workers then surely shop workers should be in the audience. When a theatre does a play about cleaners, I wonder how many cleaners actually see it? If they don't, it begs the question who are these stories for? None of us want to preach to the converted, but at least let's not bar the very focus of our play at the door.
How do we prevent theatre being an elitist experience for those who can afford it? There's an argument for taking theatre to the people - to the workplace, to schools, to community centres - which is all valid. But does this set up a two-tiered theatre provision where those with money get one type of experience, those with little get another. Many theatres offer 'pay-what-you-can' which again is valid. But is the motivation more to do with getting people in on a certain night when ticket sales are traditionally low? Are we also segregating our audience by saying one type of person can come on a Tuesday and another Wednesday to Saturday?
There are of course concessions. However, this assumes those who qualify share the same economic circumstances. People on low incomes live in varied, diverse circumstances and a £10-15 ticket for a theatre production might not be top of their agenda when trying to make ends meet.
It's led us to this: is there genuinely a model that responds to individual need, without the stigma of categorising or segregating audiences?
It's a tricky one because we live in a society where price equals quality and if we pay more for something we expect a different service or level of experience than those who have paid less. Commercial theatre depends on high ticket prices because it's the main income for covering the production costs and wages; subsidised theatre also needs to squeeze every last penny out of ticket sales to break-even and secure funding to get it on in the first place.
So, what is the solution? How do we make tickets genuinely affordable to those on low incomes, that responds to individual financial circumstances and offers an equal choice to which night they attend? For me, there seems to be only one possible conclusion:
Ticket price needs to be decided by each individual audience member at the point of sale.
In essence, it's 'pay-what-you-can' any night of the week. It means trusting the audience so that those who can afford more, pay more; those who can afford less, pay a less. In giving the same anonymous mechanism to purchase a ticket at a price each individual can afford, it sets up a level playing field for everyone.
The big BUT is this: a model like this could only be possible if the production is 100% funded and no longer reliant on ticket sales income to make up a budget shortfall. It comes back to the age old problem of how do you fund theatre. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot and turning down potential income that could go into future work?
Also, people just aren't used to it. Most of us want to be clearly guided so we know what we're getting for our money. It would be like walking into a shop and being handed a shopping basket and a pricing gun!
But I have faith in audiences that, given the chance, they will do the right thing. High quality theatre isn't always dependent on the price of a ticket. (I've walked out of some terrible productions that I paid well over £40 for). It's also about creating a new narrative for audiences in how to make a purchase so that those who can afford more, subsidise those who can afford less.
To go back to the question: where are all the working class audiences? They are an untapped audience who are waiting at the door and it's about time we let them in.