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Don’t Sacrifice the Virgins

The new West End landscape needs new thinking, enticing new patrons to boldly show where they have never shone before.


During one (and only one) Incoming of a West End show, a young couple walked up to me, and ‘The Boyfriend’, speaking for both of them, said: “Excuse me, Sir, we’ve never been to the theatre before and we don’t really know where we should go, or what to do.

I nearly hugged them. They were treated like visiting dignitaries for the remainder of their visit. And I’ll lay money that this wasn’t their last visit to a show.


Flashforward twenty years and I received a call from the Association of Youth Clubs asking if they could purchase 80,000 tickets for our West End productions for youngsters who had no experience of theatre-going. The scheme had been generously financed by the National Lottery, and we not only provided the tickets (at a greatly reduced rate) but held pre-show and interval events with cast members to make this introduction to theatre land more special for our new entrants. They learnt that theatres were not daunting bastions of the privileged few. We learnt how strange some of our practices were to young newcomers (for instance, some of our young guests had thought the three minute bell was a fire alarm ringing and started looking for the nearest exit).


Flashforward another decade or so and I’m attending an RSC production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays at The Barbican, accompanied by a former member of the wonderful Mousetrap Foundation, who have been introducing young people to the magic of theatre for decades. At the after-show party, one of the stars of the show came over to talk to my guest. He’d been one of the young people who Mousetrap had helped along the way, and now he was receiving phenomenal reviews (and subsequently awards) as one of the RSC’s brightest new stars. What a result!


But what about the forty-year-old theatre virgins? Or thirty-something gig-uninitiated? The millions who are missing out on fabulous life-affirming experiences simply because they never gave it a go? Or those who’ve tried something once, had a bad experience, and never dipped their toes back in the water? What are the live entertainment chapters of The Business of Pleasure doing to try and get these non-attenders and lapsed attenders back into the saddle?


I remember one of my first marketing budget meetings, where I made the schoolboy error of referring to the money we were ‘spending’ on promoting our productions when I should by rights have said ‘investing.’ And I’m pretty sure that, were I to propose a subsidy scheme to get new entrants to try shows and concerts for the first time, this nominal reduction of revenue would be called ‘losses,’ when these should also be called ‘investments.’ Of course, if every ticket for every performance or event is one hundred percent certain to be sold it becomes a slightly more difficult argument. But if you’re really riding that high, what’s the problem in investing some of your current bounty in your future audience?


When I’ve suggested this in the past, the first reaction tends to be: how can we know they’re first-timers and not just free-loaders? The same core of clued-up show-goers who jump on every discount bandwagon? What would a theatre or concert (or gallery and attraction) Virginity Test entail? It would probably look very similar to high-profile ticket lottery, where you weed out repeat applications to prevent speculation. Only the screening question(s) would involve asking:


Why the applicant hasn’t been to a performance/event before -or in a long time?”


And…


What makes them feel that they want to try it now?


The second reaction to my suggestion tends to be:


Will these new entrants, seduced by reduced/zero prices, ever return as full-price theatre and concert-goers?”


I would take an educated guess at this point and say that a percentage will return, and percentage, frankly, won’t. What decides the split will, I believe, the way in which we treat them during their visit. At the first ever SOLT marketing group meeting for ‘Get Into London Theatre,’ the LDA/Mayor-of-London-backed scheme to restore theatre audiences post 9/11, I listened to my colleagues around the table discussing the finer points of the promotion before questioning the whole premise of the scheme. Surely the point wasn’t to just lure patrons back through our doors, but to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase just how wonderful a trip to the West End could be, from start to finish, and every step along the way? To really wow them with what we do and how we do it? A deafening silence followed my suggestion. Until the most influential member of the group spoke up and said that they totally agreed with me. If we build it, they will come is not good enough in situations like this. We must ‘build it’ so that they come back …again and again and again.”



Copyright David Thomas 2021

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED





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