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Mark Shenton: The ‘experience economy’ is a boon for theatres

The Understudy pub, one of the many places people can eat and drink at the National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile
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West End attendances have continued to show a year-on-year increase in revenues, taking some £644 million last year, with some 14.3 million people filling a record 76.7% of available seats (but showing that there is still capacity to grow further). Meanwhile, in figures published last week, regional theatres saw a new sales high of £471 million among member venues of UK Theatre. Together, that means takings of £1.12 billion, up £30 million on 2015.

During the past 15 years, attendance at London’s theatres has risen by some 25%. And more seats are being added to the mix. Later this year Nicholas Hytner will open the Bridge Theatre beside Tower Bridge, his post-National venture as an independent director/producer with his former executive director Nick Starr, which has some 900 seats. Hytner told the Guardian: “This dice we are rolling is very much on the basis that there is plenty of room for more theatre.”

It is one of a bunch of new theatres set to increase the inventory of seats in the capital, including a new Nimax-operated venue near the site of the old Astoria at Tottenham Court Road. Meanwhile, Playground Theatre, in a converted bus depot in west London’s Ladbroke Grove, will open in October with a capacity of between 150 to 200, and the gay-programmed Above the Stag is set to relocate to new expanded premises, still in Vauxhall, that will mean it has both a 120-seat main house and a 60-seat studio, later this year.

Beyond London, new seats keep being added, too. Earlier this year the 400-seat Broadway Theatre opened in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, in a former cinema, while in Chester the new Storyhouse has just opened in another former Odeon cinema, including an 800-seat main house, a 150-seat studio, a cinema, library and cafe bar. In Manchester, Home – born out of the city’s former Cornerhouse cinema and Library Theatre – opened in May 2015 with a target of attracting 550,000 visitors in its first year, and smashed that in its first six months.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Usborne comments that studies are revealing a change in spending habits. “They call it the ‘experience economy’, which gives it the sense of a grand theory. And there is science behind it, but it’s also very simple: regardless of political uncertainty, austerity and inflation, we are spending more on doing stuff, choosing instead to cut back on buying stuff.”

And people love places where they can gather, away from the anonymity and seclusion of the online world, and share stuff communally. It means that the experience is no longer confined to the shows they come to enjoy there, but for the entire social experience. As Usborne’s feature adds: “Theatres would once never have considered putting a restaurant downstairs, but now you’d be mad not to.” The one at Home is taking £2 million a year – almost double what was expected. At Chichester, the restaurant is also integral; Rachel Tackley, the theatre’s executive director, says: “We don’t have to be just excellent theatremakers, but excellent business people. It’s about creating theatres as destinations.”

At London’s National Theatre, the riverside footfall of the bars and restaurants is now not just a lucrative profit centre but a massive part of its identity. The National Theatre belongs to us all, of course; but now it has turned into a public space, so much so that at 6pm announcements are made politely asking those who are not seeing shows to relinquish their adoptive workstations.

Chester’s Storyhouse is a similarly community-facing, multi-purpose destination: as the Observer’s architecture correspondent Rowan Moore put it, it’s “a brave and intriguing attempt to take some things that aren’t what they used to be – public libraries, giant old cinemas, regional theatres – and give them new vigour by bringing them together”. The project cost £37 million, £33 million of which was provided by the city. Artistic director Alex Clifton readied himself for criticism: “I’ve got my arguments lined up about its benefits, but I haven’t had to use them. And as Moore adds: “In the past decade Chester lost its last cinema and its last theatre, and most of the city can see how badly it needs to get some culture back.”

Inside Chester’s new £37m Storyhouse theatre

Culture is something that you can’t put a price on, but plenty of value. In Manchester, the success of Home has regenerated the area. As the Guardian reported in another article: “The venue is being overshadowed by apartment towers and a new hotel. It has become the beating heart of a neighbourhood that was a wasteland only four years ago.”

James Wallman, a trend forecaster who has charted the move from possessions to experience in his book Stuffocation: Living More With Less, writes: “That’s the magic of experientialism. It’s not anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist. Money is still going into the economy and creating jobs – we’re just spending it on experiences.”

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