Big data in theatreland

Big data in theatreland
Measuring the sector: nearly 620 million people visited the theatre in 2012
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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We live in an age of big data: Big Brother isn't just watching us, but big businesses (and smaller ones, too) are collecting information about us every time we go online.

Of course this works most visibly in the world of marketing. A recent feature in the New York Times about how Facebook was being used to market a particular premium brand of fish oil described how "modern data collection practices" allow agencies such as Datalogix to build a profile of what you've bought and – more importantly – what you might buy in future.

From fish oil to theatre is a bit of a leap, though both could be considered nutritional supplements that are good for you – one feeds the body, the other the soul. But theatre marketeers can and do now use the same information gathering techniques to target theatre fans based on their browsing and purchasing histories.

My computer now seems to know intuitively where I am by regularly delivering me ads for theatre shows wherever I am. My browsing history has obviously given me away. But if my computer knows more about me than I'd perhaps always want it to, we seem to have surrendered power to it before we even have a complete picture of what the sector contains in the first place.

On July 30, London Theatre Report was published, commissioned by the Society of London Theatre and the National Theatre and authored by The Stage's own Alistair Smith. It provided the first quantitative analysis of London's professional theatre ecology, from the smallest (the 30-seat Lord Stanley pub theatre that I've never been to) to the largest (the 3,600-seat Hammersmith Apollo), and showing for the first time just how extensive it is in terms of breadth and depth. You can see the headline figures here, or have a look at them in infographic form here.

As someone who attends London theatre several times a week, I know first-hand that I never seem to run out of things to see, but I've never realised exactly how impossible the task is to try to cover the waterfront: there are some 241 professional theatres in London, with a combined seating capacity of 110,000. No wonder it feels like I am always chasing my tail.

And that's before I even attempt to step foot outside of London, as I regularly do, too. I'd love a report now showing just how big the professional theatre scene is beyond London's pearly gates, or the headline producing theatres in places like Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, let alone the Edinburgh Fringe.

I've taken myself deliberately out of the loop these last few weeks – even I have to take a holiday from time to time – but will be back with a vengeance starting this Sunday (and yes, I am going to the theatre the very first night I get back to catch the last performance of Marry Me a Little at the St James). I am, of course, going to have to start catching up on some of the other shows I've missed, like Medea, Porgy and Bess, My Night with Reg, A Streetcar Named Desire and Dessa Rose.

That's giving me plenty to look forward to. But I've long realised that it's impossible to see everything. And now the London Theatre Report has proved it to me by showing me, in black and white, and a few shades inbetween, just how many shows there are to see. As the West End has reported year-on-year growth in attendance across the last decade, that too is only part of the overall picture.

It's breathtaking to read that in 2012/13, more than 22 million people attended London theatre performances, spending £618.5m – more than that taken by London's cinemas (a much larger network). London theatre is, despite yet more recent cuts in state funding, more resilient than ever. Suddenly, I'm a bit more of a fan of big data. I can't wait to get home to dive in to supporting and writing about it again.

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