Theatres suffer audience slump

Total audiences at subsidised theatres across England have dropped by nearly 8% over the last two years, according to figures released by Arts Council England.

Statistics reveal that the total attendances for those regularly funded organisations that reported audience levels for both 2008/9 and 2010/11, fell from 14.1 million to 13 million. The figures, taken from annual data submissions from ACE’s RFOs, also reveal that audiences are dropping disproportionately outside London.

Outside the capital, total audiences have fallen by more than 10% over the period, while theatre audiences at non-national companies have fallen by nearly 13%. At the national companies such as the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, audiences have actually increased over the two-year period by around 400,000 people.

Audiences within other art forms – including visual arts, combined arts, dance and music – have also all increased over the two-year period. London theatre has also remained relatively stable, with audiences falling by less than 4% over the two years.

The figures include both known and estimated audience levels. Estimated audiences include non-ticketed events such as free outdoor performances. When only known audience levels are included, the data reveals that attendances across England have increased by around 2% over the period, although there is a small drop between 2009/10 and 2010/11. However, when national companies are taken out of the equation, the data still points to falling audience levels.

Neil Darlison, Arts Council England’s acting head of theatre, told The Stage he was encouraged by the fact that known audience levels across the period – including free tickets given out under the Night Less Ordinary scheme – have remained stable. However, he did acknowledge that things appeared to be tougher for theatres outside London.

“I think the encouraging thing is that known or paid attendance has stayed about level,” he said. “Although, that then might disguise a capital/non-capital imbalance and if you look at the national companies their attendance has risen – especially because of London transfers.

“In the capital, it would appear as buoyant as ever. Not only are attendances holding up, but cultural opportunities generally are growing in London, where I think that’s harder outsider the capital. The further north you go, the more reliant on the public sector it gets and they are traditionally the arts attenders feeling the pinch. The discretionary spend outside the M25 is a lot less than it once was and going to the theatre is potentially seen as a luxury item.”

Darlison, though, also believes that a new £45 million strategic touring fund being introduced by ACE this year will help to address areas “particularly outside of the capital where attendance is going down or opportunities to see theatre are fewer”.

The full report is available at www.artscouncil.org.uk

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster