Putting more bums on seats

Philip is an actor and stand up comedian and a regular freelance contributor to The Stage
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Have you heard? Theatre producers are launching a new idea to get more people into their shows by giving free tickets to homeless people. They’re calling the scheme 'bums on seats’.

Okay, so that’s clearly a joke (apologies for the poor taste; I’ll repeat…it’s a joke), but wouldn’t it be great if producers worried less about profit margins and more about providing better audiences for their shows?

I’ve been an actor for over a decade and a stand-up comedian for two years (notwithstanding the previous joke, The Stage once described me as ‘never less than hilarious’).

I have played to huge sold out venues as well as woefully small audiences, and I know which I prefer. Often, the reason for low attendance rates is the total cost of going to the theatre; tickets, travel, programmes, refreshments…but that’s not what this rant is about.

If producers feel the need to sell tickets at a premium rate, then good luck to them, but often these seats haven’t sold by the time the show starts. Wouldn’t it be better to fill those spaces at a reduced standby rate and make a little more money? Or would they rather cut off their noses to spite their faces and make less money while forcing their hard-working casts to perform to empty chairs? Larger audiences mean better performances, which in turn leads to increased future ticket sales when today’s audience share their experience with tomorrow’s theatregoers.

[pullquote]Some profit is better than no profit[/pullquote]

There are, of course, many wonderful theatres all over the country already offering standby tickets. Some restrict the discount to certain demographics such as students, OAPs, Equity members, etc, but why can’t more be done to encourage all theatres to recognise that ‘bums on seats’ are more valuable to them (even at a lower cost) than hoards of empty chairs? Surely producers can’t be so short-sighted as to not have worked out that not selling a £60 ticket is worse than selling that same seat for £10, for example.

Think about people in our industry who go to the theatre as research. Many would go more often if they could do so on an affordable budget. Actors, directors, writers, choreographers, designers and many more are a captive audience, as well as those ‘civilians’ who just like supporting the arts. Theatres would be fuller (and more profitable) if last minute ticket discounts were more widely available.

At the recent Annual Representative Conference, Equity passed a motion stating it would look into encouraging more theatres to offer reduced rates to union members. Wouldn’t it be great if this was something that seemed so obvious to all involved that before long all theatres, especially those receiving public money, appreciated that some profit is better than no profit?


  1. Aside from West End, it doesn’t seem that theatres are already making as much as they would wish. It’s difficult to see how they could provide cheaper or free opportunities for the audience.

    However, I’m just speculating here. Great point though.

  2. This is total sense. Not only would the producers get some revenue – rather than none – but the people they would attract would be educated enthusiastic people who would make a more satisfying audience.

  3. I think standby works brilliantly for those theatres that have well-established advance booking and those that often have full auditoria. They work really well for the theatres because the standby seats are often returns and/or they are filling up orphan seats and gaps that haven’t sold in advance. For fringe theatres and those that are struggling to fill the auditoria I think last minute reductions would be likely to work against them – if they were widely publicised. I wouldn’t buy a £60 or even a £20 seat in advance if I knew there was a good chance I could buy it for £10 on the night. I completely understand what you are saying, but I don’t think it would be good business sense for theatres to publicise it for the general public. However, I think offering reduced price stand-by tickets for Equity members (for example) could work well. I think it has to be for a select group of people. It makes that group feel special, it allows the theatre (possibly) to fill some seats that would otherwise be empty and the Equity members might even bring full-price paying friends along. That way you are not discouraging your entire potential audience from making advance purchases.

  4. Whilst Philip may think he is joking about filling theatres with the homeless I can actually report that this is a practice undertaken at some
    Theatres off Broadway. I had first hand experience of this some years ago where both shelter from cold weather for a few hours and bizarrely free candy had been used to attract homeless attendees. It was all to disastrous affect with the  audience of homeless attendees coming in and out of the auditorium during the performance which was a magic show. I can tell you the show was terrible and whether you were homeless or not no one was enjoying it much – the magician also had a terrible time with assistants for his tricks as several of the audience members could not speak English or were incomprehensible due to drink. Alongside this you had to fight over sleeping bags and rucksacks to get into the auditorium, there seemed to be problems with bottles from outside being brought into the theatre and a distressed Front of House staff – but the candy was popular. As I relayed this account of my theatregoing experience afterwards to a colleague of mine in New York I was told I had just had “a true New York experience” and it is certainly a memory not to be forgotten. However as a practice for seat filling  it’s not one that I will be adopting.

  5. As a member of Equity in Australia since 1971, and a regular performer in film, stage, Tv, music theatre, I miss out on seeing so many fabulous shows and applauding my peers. When I am performing (sometimes 18month to 2 years run) other shows conflict with my schedule, and when I am ‘resting’ the budget is tight. How I would love, as someone who has given 40+ years to my art, to be able to attend a show at an ‘Equity’ fee and put not only more bums on seats, but place a totally supportive audience member in the venue. I have missed so much over the years.

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