Phil Willmott: What’s bugging you about the theatre industry?

First time theatre goers enjoy Phil Willmott's production of Oedipus at the Scoop. Photo: Orla Brahammar First time theatre goers enjoy Phil Willmott's production of Oedipus at the Scoop. Photo: Orla Brahammar
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Knowing I’d be covering a few of Mark Shenton’s blog spots while he was on holiday, I asked, via Facebook and other social media, if there were any issues friends and followers thought warranted attention. I’ll be using some of the ideas as the basis of future articles, but here are a few of the other subjects raised…

Rush tickets

My editor forwarded a tweet asking for The Stage to explore the practice of last minute ‘rush’ tickets. These are released for sell-out shows to people who are prepared to queue on the day. I asked for people’s thoughts.

In response, a Cambridge graduate made a surprising point, remarking that she was “interested in whether cheaper tickets for young people are actually the best way to increase participation in the arts.” She added: “Some 20-year-olds can afford tickets that some 40-year-olds can’t,” and concluding that “more concessions based on income rather then age might be worth considering”.

A current student also questioned whether cheaper tickets are actually bringing in a younger audience, reporting: “I saw My Night With Reg and Splendour at the Donmar with £10 Barclays Front Row tickets (which are amazing – it’s so great that they do them) but I was surprised that the Barclays Front Row audience didn’t seem very different to everyone else. Now, obviously you can’t make assumptions from briefly looking at people, but it did make me think about whether those tickets do actually go to young people who couldn’t otherwise afford them.”

Interesting points but I’m not sure how you’d prove how broke you are when booking a ticket.

However, this does raise the question of whether it’s lack of awareness rather than cost that stops young adults going to the theatre, which would go against much current thinking.

Government investment

A seasoned, much-respected arts fundraiser shared his frustration that “this government doesn’t seem to get the value of investing in the arts,” and asked, “Are we missing a trick in the way we talk with ministers and civil servants? Because this seems to have been the case all my life (with a couple of extraordinary exceptional times).”

Another correspondent added, “In addition to direct subsidy via the arts council etc, I think that if [the government] created a tax regime that encouraged philanthropy in the arts we’d all be in a much better place.”

I don’t think we’ll see much progress there. As the first friend noted, we do seem to be locked in a perpetual battle to get the arts taken seriously as an area for government investment. But how to break the cycle?


The Young Vic has just hosted a seminar about the injustices parents of young children face in our industry. It’s a topic that’s got a lot of exposure elsewhere, but the passion it has generated, informing some heated correspondence, seems to define it as a major issue we need to keep at the forefront of our thinking.

Audience behaviour

I enjoyed a splendidly curmudgeonly comment from an old friend who remarked, “Since attracting a younger audience by filling theatres with crappy musicals based on films and populating them with reality-TV-game-show celebs, the average understanding of theatre etiquette appears to have diminished. Absolutely sick, sick, sick of people chatting through a piece, checking phones for messages and rustling sweet wrappers as though they are sitting on the couch in their own living room.”

None of us likes habitual phone users, chatterboxes and sweet guzzlers, but I would add that we’re not born with the knowledge of how to behave in a theatre.

Of course, we hope people are brought up with basic good manners and consideration for others, but if your experience of watching drama has only ever been TV and a boisterous cinema on a Saturday night, live theatre might be quite a jump.

Each summer, I direct a project at The Scoop at More London which attracts tens of thousands of people who’ve never been to the theatre before. Mostly, they’re surprisingly attentive, but occasionally, when acting there myself, I’ve stopped mid-scene to fix someone who’s distracting me (and the rest of the audience) with a Paddington Bear-style hard stare. They usually look mortified and sometimes tell me later that they just hadn’t considered the actors could see and hear them.

Mental health

Long-term colleague Annemarie Lewis Thomas reminded me of her ongoing campaign to include mental health provision in drama schools. The West End producer has also recently mentioned the programme she’s pioneering at her Musical Theatre Academy.

I’d like to add that personally I’ve always battled with a crippling shyness that seems to get worse, not better, as I get older, and can be very prohibitive in the theatre world. The success of any given day is dependent on how well I master the coping mechanisms from a therapist that I’ve only recently been able to afford. If someone had helped me as a young cub at Rose Bruford, who knows, maybe I’d have networked my way to Tony award-winning, international success by now? So let’s wish her luck as she prepares to address a conference in New York with her ideas.

Life is tough in our profession, so it makes perfect sense to me that we develop good mental health practices to sustain us from the outset.