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Alistair Smith: British Theatre Repertoire report data can provide programming wisdom

Julian Clary in Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome Julian Clary in Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome last year; pantomimes prove to be reliable seat fillers
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The British Theatre Repertoire report is an absolute treasure trove of insights and information about the UK theatre industry.

I would recommend that anyone who programmes a theatre, or who has an interest in how theatres are programmed, reads the report in full, because our coverage this week is only the tip of the iceberg. There are nuggets on every page.

For example, it’s fascinating to see how different genres perform in terms of ticket sales. Those that appear to perform best at packing out theatres are pantomime and musicals, with average attendances of 72.5% and 70.4% respectively. Plays on the other hand appear to be a harder sell, with an average house of only 60.4%.

If you drill down into the data on plays, you see that classical plays (those written pre-1850) are the most reliable in terms or attracting audiences, with 79.9% of seats sold – even higher than musicals and pantos. In fact, the classics appear to be increasingly popular with audiences, as this figure is an increase of 5% on 2013. Conversely, modern (1850-1945) and post-war drama fares less well, as do brand new plays, which have an average house of 62%.

Interestingly, though, there is far more new work and post-war work being programmed than classical work. This may seem counter-intuitive. Theatres would appear to be programming more of the work that audiences want the least.

In fact, if you were programming a theatre, you might be tempted to draw the conclusion from this report that you should programme more musicals and Shakespeare revivals and extend your pantomime season. That is, of course, if you’re only programming with the bottom line in mind.

Maybe that’s not too surprising. But what about one of the other – admittedly less programmed – genres that is outperforming most of those named above? Devised work. Remarkably, it performed at 73% capacity in 2014 (up from 57% in 2013). It will be interesting to see if that is a blip or a signal of a growing appetite for this kind of work.

Theatre – and the arts more generally – can often be averse to relying too heavily on data to inform ‘artistic’ decision making. This is perhaps understandable, and I’m not suggesting that theatres use these statistics as the sole means to programme a season of work.

But it can’t hurt to get an insight into what audiences actually want to see, can it?

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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