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Editor’s view: Ticket prices are a balancing act for all theatres

The TKTS booth in Leicester Square offers discounted tickets to West End shows.
Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor of The Stage. Having joined the publication on staff in 2004, he has also held the roles of reporter, news editor, opinion editor, deputy editor and print editor at The Stage and has written for publications ranging from The Guardian to Hello! Magazine. He is also the author of two major industry reports (the London Theatre Report and the Theatre Workforce Review) and a founder of the My Theatre Matters! campaign.
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The mixed economy, in which commercial and not-for-profit sectors exist in a symbiotic relationship, is the defining feature of British theatre.

In continental Europe, commercial theatre tends to be artistically tired, while in the US, the not-for-profit sector is less well-resourced than in Europe.

In most parts of the world, it is easy to tell apart work created in the commercial and subsidised sectors, but less so in the UK – and certainly in London, where we are blessed with artistically buoyant commercial producers and not-for-profits that are increasingly commercially savvy.

This is a great strength, but also a source of confusion for the public – especially when it comes to ticket prices and whether producers have a duty to keep ticket prices low.

The Stage ticketing survey 2017

Commercial and not-for-profit producers have contrasting responsibilities when it comes to pricing. A commercial producer’s prime responsibility is to its investors and maximising returns on their investment. This means that they have a responsibility to make as much money at the box office as they can.

This does not always mean that they should charge the highest ticket prices, but that they must come up with a strategy that maximises returns in the long term. High ticket prices are likely to play a part in this. This is even more the case when a secondary market is involved: if tickets are undervalued, then someone else will resell them at a higher fee. But they don’t want to price tickets at a level that will put people off, nor one that discourages future generations from picking up the theatre bug.

Little of this applies to the not-for-profit sector where profit should not be the defining feature of a show’s pricing policy. Indeed, the company often receives money from the taxpayer to make its shows accessible. But even here, there is a responsibility to make back money to invest in future productions, pay people properly and create great art (another important function of public subsidy).

In both cases, ticket pricing is a balancing act and exists in competition with a number of other factors. And it’s even more complicated when you consider that both commercial and not-for-profit producers are operating within the same market and that, on occasion, they are also working in partnership. If a commercial and subsidised producer are working together, which responsibility trumps which – the duty to commercial investors, or to accessibility?

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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