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Barriers To Entry -a case of mistaken identity?


Back in the very early 1980’s, one of the ‘majors’ I used to read for had a major dilemma. The company had acquired the distribution rights to a movie which, under the prevailing logic of the times, could not be profitably distributed in any shape of form whatsoever. There were two reasons. Firstly, the film was a sports movie, and women did not go to sports movies. Secondly, it was a period drama, and men did not go to period dramas. But it was a good movie, some would say a great one, and was undeniably based on a great story. So, nothing daunted, the company decided that, as they could not sell it, they would comp it, coast-to-coast, principally through U.S. University towns. They scheduled the run to include the obligatory seven consecutive days in Los Angeles, to be eligible for contention at the Oscars, and after the successful ‘whispering campaign’ through American Academe, the film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards …winning 4, including Best Picture. Chariots of Fire went on to be a hit, with both genders, and to the best of my knowledge there were no incidents of men in the audience gagging at the sight of tweed jackets, or women being hospitalised by exposure to pumping thigh muscles. In short, the Oscar haul had over-ridden the issue of ‘gender identity by genre.’ The barrier to entry had been overcome.


Our tastes and interests are incredibly important for defining our identity, and more so in The Business of Pleasurethan most other areas of life. As one recent research paper put it (Fingerhut, Gomez-Lavin, Winklmayr and Prinz, March 2021) “changes in aesthetic preferences, for example, moving from liking classical music to liking pop, are perceived as altering us as a person. The Aesthetic Self Effect is as strong as the impact of moral changes, such as altering political partisanship or religious orientation, and significantly stronger than for other categories of taste, such as food preferences.” The canny marketers of Chariots of Fire had focused on U.S. campuses, possibly influenced in part by the film’s University settings, but it is also a general rule that, generally speaking, the more educated a person, the less restricted they are by barriers to engagement and participation.


But not always…


Some years ago I ‘represented’ Musical Theatre at a three-day Arts Council event with a couple of hundred senior emissaries from the nation’s music, theatre and dance communities. But when the time came for me to present my session, the only person to attend was a nice Dutch lady who had somehow got lost in the building. The respective, and highly-respected, disciplines of music, theatre and dance had absolutely no interest in the hugely commercial (and therefore decidedly suspect) genre that combined all three elements. Although somewhat disappointed, I wasn’t all that surprised. I had previously spent many months attempting to sell musicals to the French market, where the entire genre was almost universally regarded as two steps down from Carry On movies. If I had a euro for every time I’d asked: “Do you promote musical theatre to your cultural groups?” only to be met with a snarky “Non, we promote culture.” So when the head of Stage Entertainment kicked off a conference keynote speech with the line: “All over the world tonight, people will be gathering together to enjoy musical theatre…” I interrupted from the floor with “except in France.” The other delegates looked daggers at me, but the keynote speaker merely assayed a gallic shrug and nodded “Yes, except in France.”



In these islands we often experience the opposite problem.


During an Arts Marketing course the then Head of Scottish Galleries picked up a vase and asked: “How is selling this vase different from sell The Arts?” I whispered what I felt the answer was to the delegate next to me, adding: “..but if I say that will I get beaten up?” “Probably” she replied, “but say it anyway.” “The difference is,” I began falteringly, “that in the UK selling The Arts is like selling drugs. You can successfully peddle drugs as ‘caffeine’, ‘nicotine’, ‘alcohol’ or whatever, as long as you don’t mention the ‘D’ word. And the same goes for the ‘A’ word (‘Arts’) because we, in common with some other countries, have an instinctive and inbuilt national philistinism. And God help you if you ever use the dreaded ‘C’ word …‘culture.’” I eyed the exit, ready to run, as the Head of Galleries reached for her handbag. But instead of removing a revolver, or throwing knife, she took out a single sheet of paper. It was the Agenda for the Opening Session of the Scottish galleries conference that was kicking off in Edinburgh the following day. “First Session, 9 am….” she read aloud to us “Can We Call It Something Else, Please?


The world has moved on a bit since then. In 2018 Tate Modern knocked The British Museum off the top spot, for the first time in ten years, as the best attended attraction in England (5.87 million visitors) with the National Gallery taking third place. This is, of course, in large part due to the success of galleries in reaching out to new entrants, getting them to overcome their inbuilt barriers. And not before time. During the same marketing course (2002?) we were told that the most recent survey of gallery attendees had recorded that approximately 85% of respondents gave their reason for attending as: “we were walking past and saw people go in.”


But new entrants bring new issues with them


In the early days of Mamma Mia! we lost a member of staff, so I foolishly volunteered to cover a few shows a week as Duty Manager. Just long enough to recruit the right replacement for the role. Up until that point I had worked on shows that had attracted more than their fair share of new audiences (Cats, Les Miz, Phantom) but where there was still a large percentage of ‘traditional’ musical theatregoers in the audience, and everyone pretty much got along. With Mamma Mia! it was very different. We had a potentially explosive mix of Musical Theatre afficionados and patrons for whom it was a completely new experience. So the West Coast Professor of Jurisprudence would ‘insist’ that I call security because the woman next to him was singing. “I’m sorry, Sir,” I replied, “I can ask her to sing a bit softer, but in my experience that just makes them sing, well, louder. Oh, and by the way, they will be getting up and dancing to the next number.” The works outings were the worst. One group leader (made in Dagenham) took great exception to my sending an usher through the row to stop them taking photos. “How dare you send a Croatian to speak to me!” she shrieked. A pattern soon emerged, however, with some ninety percent of the problems kicking-off in the Stalls. So, in response, I’d make a circuit of that section before every show (God Bless centre aisles!) swinging my massive bunch of managers’ key menacingly. Spotting potential troublemakers as I passed, I would glower at them and point as if to say, “I know where you live.” I would then scarper back to the sound desk and ‘give the go’ before a physical response could be initiated. To this day, my social media feed is replete with friends’ posts bemoaning new entrants’ behaviour during the show (eating, drinking, talking, tweeting, feet on seats, etc.) but I can’t say, hand on heart, that I’ve notice a concerted effort to educate these new entrants into the ways of their new environment. They continue to create issues for more traditional theatregoers, and vex theatre management, “But,” to quote The Stranglers, “…the money’s so good!”


Barriers to entry, are, in large part, crises of identity. And while establishing a coherent identity in early adulthood ‘is seen as one of the defining characteristics of positive youth development,’ it does have this massive downside of limiting an individual’s ability to engage with a broader spectrum of experiences. In the words of Italian anthropologist, Francesco Remotti, ‘Identity is an ideology that shapes reality by enforcing cuts and separations.’ These barriers, or proscriptions, raised up by identity are not only extremely bad for us engaged in The Business of Pleasure. They can also be hugely detrimental our patrons themselves. Particularly if it means that they prevent them from actively participating in The Arts themselves, and thereby miss out on the acknowledged health benefits.


From Barriers (and Barricades!) to Bridges

An Illustration ….taken from my post: “The Sure Thing

Back in the day I used to drive Box Office Managers mad by sitting on the window (remember those?) from time to time to see what demand was like at the coalface. On one occasion at Les Miz four youths asked to purchase eight top price in the Stalls, the best I could get them, because they’d “kind of seen the show from up there (pointing towards the Heavens) and really liked it.” I released a block of House Seats (with the assistance of the Box Office Manager, as the line grew and grew…) and wished the guys a fantastic night. “Oh no mate,” they replied, we also want eight top price for the Dress Circle, a couple of weeks later, so we can see what the show is like from there as well.” Once they’d left the foyer, with their sixteen top price tickets, I did a little dance around the box office. The veteran of many Audience Development initiatives, which generally (but not always) involved offering heavily discounted ticket seats to the same middle-class theatregoers (who would have probably paid full whack for them anyway) I had stumbled, purely accidentally, on the one sure way to get people who ‘don’t do theatre’ …to do it.

That had not been my intention. The balcony at Drury Lane can be a nightmare to fill on an off-peak midweek performance, even for a hugely successful show, so I reduced the packaging price of those tickets (for My Fair Lady) to such a ridiculously low level that tour operators sent the deal sheet back believing I’d missed a digit (or lost my marbles). Later I did the same thing at the Palace, and there weren’t enough restaurant places to accommodate the surge on meal deals. The short term objective had been achieved; we were getting some money for seats that would have remained empty. The longer term gain, I realized later, was that a huge percentage of these attendees were not theatregoers per se. We had lured them in with the promise of a night out, and if they hated the show they could still look forward to the ‘guaranteed experience’ of the burger and fries or fajitas. The next time our shows were invited to participate in an Audience Development initiative I refused point blank to let the organisers (except Mousetrap of course) have a discount, adding “But you can have a decent number of comps if you can package with a post-show Night Club or something else non-theatre.”

There has been precious little research on the impact of trauma on identity, but one recent project, involving 1700 Lithuanian university students, concluded that they ‘did not find clear evidence that traumatic experiences may shape identity formation.’ Nevertheless, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and I personally feel that the ‘wind of change’ that the pandemic has created over the past eighteen months, in so many areas, may also have shaken loose some of the barriers holding potential patrons back from making a broader engagement with The Business of Pleasure. And that, I believe, should hold true for lapsed attenders as well as new entrants. It may not take a whisper campaign, as with Chariots of Fire, the music of Abba, as with Mamma Mia! or the wholesale renaming The Arts, as per Scottish Galleries …or indeed burgers, fries and fajitas. My bet is, as with so many things in our world, Necessity, The Mother of Invention, will sit down with Greed, the Father of Intention, and we will set about the serious business of knocking down walls …Bigtime!


Copyright David Thomas 2021

All Rights Reserved


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