Exclusive: Labour’s flagship free ticket scheme delivered mixed results – report

Natalie Woolman

Almost 7,000 young people went to the theatre for the first time as a result of a Labour initiative offering free tickets for under-26s, but a “significant proportion” of the 400,000 tickets were taken up by existing theatregoers who would have paid for their seat had the two-year initiative not existed.

These are the findings of an independent report evaluating Arts Council England’s £2.4 million A Night Less Ordinary scheme, which was launched at the 2008 Labour Party Conference and saw free tickets given to young people for performances at more than 200 venues across England.

An estimated 6,800 people went to the theatre for the first time through the initiative. However, the number of attendances by young people who took up free tickets but who would have paid to go to the performances anyway was estimated to be as many as 119,000 to 250,000.

Nevertheless, more than a quarter of the young people who took advantage of the scheme tried a different theatre and 56% of them saw a type of show they had not seen before, while 88% said they were likely to pay to go to the theatre next time. The total number of attendances was 396,687 out of a possible 525,174 tickets made available throughout the duration of the scheme.

Phil Cave, director of public engagement at the arts council, said he was pleased with the results.

He told The Stage: “I was humbled and moved by the effort that the theatres put into it. If we go back to the origins of this, it was a pilot scheme, we had never done this before, no one had ever done anything that was a national scheme working in this way.

“Given what we were trying to do and the challenges involved, I am really pleased with the results. [That is] in terms of the attendances that we did reach and the financial impact and the learning from the theatres. I think it is quite compelling.”

On average, young people who took part visited the participating venues five times during the course of the scheme and the report estimates 184,000 theatre visits would not have taken place without the initiative. Cave said that “people need to see a critical mass of things before they get the habit”.

There is a range of feedback in the report from the participating theatres. Some venues reported that the scheme was too administratively demanding and that it undermined existing ticket offers but others said ANLO helped them to widen participation and develop targeted marketing strategies for young people.

Polka Theatre gave away a total of 4,333 tickets through A Night Less Ordinary, and the majority of these went to people who had never seen a Polka show.

Jonathan Lloyd, Polka’s artistic director, said: “Polka has a long history of engaging schools and families from disadvantaged backgrounds and engaging with a vast number of people for whom a trip to Polka is their first experience. A Night Less Ordinary allowed us to increase the amount of families and children that could benefit from our various ticket schemes and has been really worthwhile in this regard.”

A spokesman for the Octagon in Bolton added: “A Night Less Ordinary provided opportunities for activ8, our learning and participation department, to access harder to reach communities by offering theatre trips for young people, many of whom had never stepped foot in a theatre. This has led to further community projects with some of the young people involved performing on stage in our festive show. We hope to build on these successes by continuing to offer a young person’s £4 ticket to those aged 17 to 26.”

At the Labour Party Conference in 2008, then culture secretary Andy Burnham announced that the government was going to fund one million free tickets for young people. This later shrunk to a target of 618,000 free tickets to be given away, and then a target of 500,000. The coalition government “curtailed” the scheme in summer 2010, and the national marketing campaign was wound up although local marketing continued until the end of the pilot in spring 2011.

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