Speaking to Lyric Hammersmith executive director Jessica Hepburn ahead of The Theatres Trust Conference she mentioned her holistic attitude to running the building: “We are always trying to expand on all fronts…whether it’s ticket sales or other income generation opportunities, like catering.”
Heading up the Lyric’s impressive multi-million pound redevelopment, Hepburn knows what she’s talking about. But it wasn’t from the financial point of view that her statement stuck with me. Rather it was the 360 degree way she approached the building not only as a performance space but as a culinary one as well.
Theatre cafes and bars are vital, as Hepburn says they provide an important area of income yet they’re not always focused on within fringe theatres. Meanwhile, the West End has long understood the attraction of ‘dinner and a show’ peddling bargain deals with affiliate restaurants.
For some fringe theatres, space is an undeniable issue; perhaps this is why so many are above pubs – organisations that deal with this side, and pocket the cash. But for those with space to spare it’s becoming increasingly important to think as much about the café/bar, as the auditorium. Just look at the new Park Theatre, where the ultra-cool industrial bar area makes you want to hang out after the show or the Young Vic’s café, which is almost as famous as its artistic programme, and just as successful.
The function of these spaces is threefold; they are the first place audiences experience and their atmosphere sets a tone; they bring in much needed income; they’re a place for people to gather post-show to continue talking and sharing their experience. They make theatres ‘creative hubs’ where artists can swap ideas and places of communion for audiences to gather. Moreover, they also pull new and non-theatre goers into spaces.
It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to provide a pleasant space where you can eat and drink. Just look at The Yard Theatre’s superb café – I know I keep going on about how great they are but have you been yet? – which offers a Cocktail of the Day and has recently launched a programme of chef residences. This keeps the menu up to date and also allows them to link in themed cuisine to match what’s going on in the auditorium.
And they’re not the only ones. Over at Sloane Square as part of the Royal Court’s Open Court season, Surprise Theatre will offer audiences a surprise one off performance on Monday and Tuesday evenings. To coincide with this the Royal Court Café Bar & Kitchen are serving a pre-show Surprise Menu where the menu is only revealed when it is served. This is dinner and a show done creatively – a clever idea that will enrich the audience’s experience and increase income.
Maybe you think that this is common sense or that theatres are already doing enough. But some fringe theatres still need to take heed – either not having a bar or having one that feels like a school canteen. As the market gets increasingly more competitive every edge, even a consumable one, is vital.