As the currency exchange firm ends its sponsorship of the National’s tickets scheme after 15 years, Matt Trueman looks at the colossal impact it has had on theatre culture and whether this will be a disaster for the NT or, having diversified its income streams, an opportunity to ensure cheap seats on its own terms
Asked how theatre might match cinema for popular appeal in 2001, Nicholas Hytner had a simple answer: “Charge less for tickets.” By the time he became artistic director designate at the National Theatre later that year, lowering prices had become his main mission. The cost of theatregoing was, he believed, “a barrier to the ‘new’ audience” – one that had been in place for decades.
At a press conference earlier this month, his successor Rufus Norris announced the end of the scheme that made cheap seats possible at the NT: Travelex Tickets. After 15 years, Lloyd Dorfman’s currency exchange company had withdrawn its sponsorship. “This kind of consumer partnership is no longer the right fit for them,” Norris explained, throwing the future of affordable tickets on the South Bank into doubt. Can the National maintain its £15 seats without Travelex’s support?
Travelex Tickets has been an undeniable success – nothing short of a cultural revolution. At the time Sam Mendes, then artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, credited it with having “almost single-handedly brought a new generation of audiences into British theatre”.
It started with a spreadsheet. Lisa Burger, now the National’s executive director, remembers the “eureka moment” when the figures finally fell into place.
Hytner and his executive director Nick Starr calculated that by selling out the Olivier at reduced rates, the National could match current box office income at over 60% capacity. Instead of budgeting for a bottom line of 55%, the National would put more bums on cheaper seats and still come out even.
Stripping out staggered pricing from £19 to £33, they introduced a two-tier ticket structure in the Olivier. The entire central seating bank was priced at £25, with the remaining two-thirds of the theatre (702 seats) costing just £10. Low prices were offset by reduced production costs of £60,000 – two-thirds of an ordinary Olivier set budget – with simpler sets enabling speedier turnarounds, meaning 28 extra performances over six months; a potential box office bump of £400,000. It still left a six-figure shortfall, but Dorfman, drawn to a scheme he deemed “innovative, groundbreaking, a great deal for the theatregoer”, brought Travelex on board in a £1 million three-year deal.
Travelex Tickets was still a risk – increased attendance wasn’t guaranteed – but it proved an immediate, unparalleled success. Three of the first four Travelex shows – Henry V, His Girl Friday and Edmond – topped 96% capacity, with the fourth, Tales from the Vienna Woods, overcoming mixed reviews to average 75% houses. Of the first 100,000 cheap tickets, 20,000 went to first-time attendees, around half of whom returned within 18 months.
Longer-term, its impact has been colossal. Over 15 years, more than three million people have been to Travelex productions – 1.8 million of those at the cheapest rate. Its first decade – 46 shows – achieved an average capacity of 90%, only once dipping below 60% with the arcane 17th-century Spanish epic, Damned by Despair. The new model seemed to have done away with an old NT problem – the big Olivier flop – even as it enticed new audiences to the National and cushioned more experimental programming. The most recent Travelex show, Exit the King, achieved an average of 84% capacity – staggering for an obscure Eugene Ionesco play in a 1,000-seat theatre over the height of a heatwave-hit summer.
Similar schemes sprang up in its wake – not just a measure of success, but a paradigm shift. Donmar’s Barclays Front Row, backed by the bank, made 300 seats a week available at £10. In the West End, the Michael Grandage Company offered 100,000 tickets at the same rate – a price other commercial productions have since sought to match, albeit on a smaller scale.
Burger believes Travelex changed the entire culture at the National. “It defined this movement that says theatre is for everyone,” she says. And she also believes its spirit underpinned the organisation’s other big shifts: NT Live, reaching audiences nationwide; NT Future, opening up a building that could seem unwelcoming. “It’s all about how you make sure that, as a national theatre, you’re signalling in every way that theatre’s for everyone.”
Pricing is a big part of that and, as director of audiences Alex Bayley spells out, the National recently pledged to ensure a third of the tickets sold on the South Bank cost less than £20. Travelex Tickets made up the bulk of that. So is that commitment now under threat?
In fact, Travelex Tickets is already far short of what it once was. While ticket prices have increased – first, to £12 in May 2011, then again three years later when they hit £15 – those hikes have only kept pace with inflation. Less noticeably, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of seats priced at the lowest rate. Originally two-thirds of the Olivier auditorium, this year only half its seats, 511, are equivalently priced – a reduction of almost 30%. Moreover, seating plans provided by TheatreMonkey.com show that the rest of the pricing structure has returned to previous rates. Adjusted for inflation, today’s top-price Travelex rates (£50) are the same as they were before the scheme began. (The Olivier’s standard top rate, £68, is considerably higher.) The second cheapest tickets of £28 are equivalent to the lowest prices pre-Travelex.
Straightened funding and harder economic climes made price hikes “necessary”, Bayley admits. Production costs have risen too, as they have across the board, and ambitious, large-scale Olivier shows such as Follies and Antony and Cleopatra have reconfigured the rep schedule. The tenets on which Travelex Tickets was built, the things that made it seem bulletproof, have begun to be eroded. Since 2011’s initial seating restructure, the number of cheap tickets has significantly dipped. Last year’s risky Olivier season sold just 54,166 tickets at the cheapest rate – a record low.
Yet losing Travelex’s sponsorship is not, the National insists, a disaster. According to Burger, the deal’s terms hadn’t dramatically changed in 15 years. What has changed, however, is the National itself. In the same time, its turnover has more than doubled, up to £107 million last year from £41 million in 2005, making Travelex’s sponsorship, proportionally, far less significant. Having diversified its income streams, the National is far better placed to ensure cheap tickets on its own terms.
It is, however, seeking new sponsors. Speaking at the press conference, Norris insisted he remained “very confident” of securing a corporate partner to take up Travelex’s mantle, while warning that any deal might not be like-for-like.
Echoing that, Burger sees the shift as an opportunity for the NT: “How can we make this offer bigger?” she asks. “Can we try to extend it to our work around the country?” For all its good, Travelex Tickets solely benefited audiences in London. Last year, 65% of the National’s audience, at the South Bank and on tour – not including NT Live – lived outside the capital.
Burger says her team is currently involved in several “very interesting conversations”, but she admits that corporate sponsorship has become “a highly competitive market” – not just among arts organisations with enhanced development teams, but against sports teams and music events offering global reach. While she refuses to rule out any potential partner, such as Shell or BP, Burger acknowledges that sponsorship “always has to work both ways. We’ll look at partners that are suitable for the National Theatre.”
For now, the National is offering no guarantees that it can keep its tickets Travelex cheap, but both Bayley and Burger believe it is doable – depending on subsidy staying steady.
“It’s something I feel is just so fundamental to what we do,” Burger says. “We would push and push and push to keep tickets cheap. It depends on how hard it is, but on my list of things that have to go first, it would be right down the bottom.”