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Christopher Haydon: Theatres urgently need to become egalitarian spaces

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Theatres are regularly criticised as unwelcoming places for working-class people. Christopher Haydon argues that the industry needs to take decisive action to bring audiences of all backgrounds through the doors

Near where I live in Camberwell, south London, there used to be a greasy spoon called the Jungle Grill Cafe. If you went in on any day of the week, you would find it one of the most genuinely diverse clienteles of any place in London.

A group of manual labourers in high-vis jackets would be at one table, opposite a young black family. Next to them would be an elderly white couple sipping tea and in the corner you might find some students from the local art college. Then there would be people like me – who have social privilege and are as generically middle-class as they come. It was a space that felt genuinely egalitarian, democratic and representative of the area in which it was located.

I have always felt that this is how theatre buildings should feel. They should be focal points for people from very different social, cultural and economic backgrounds to come together and share artistic experiences on an equal footing.

Looking around, this is clearly not the case. British theatres are, for the most part, definitively white, middle-class spaces. As theatremaker Javaad Alipoor recently wrote in the Guardian: “The arts world has turned working-class people into a problem to be solved rather than audience members or artists to be developed.”

This perspective is backed up by the statistics. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll revealed that 36% of the British public saw going to the theatre as “posh”. By comparison, only 2% thought of such activities as stand-up comedy, live music or the cinema in those terms.

To make matters worse, the recently published report Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency made it clear how under-represented working-class people are in our audiences. While 33.3% of those who attended a play in the last year could be considered middle-class (against 37.5% of the population as a whole) only 12.7% of those who could be considered working-class did the same (against 34.5% of the population as a whole).

For an industry that is so reliant on taxpayers’ money, this is clearly not acceptable. So to understand how we might change this, I embarked upon an extensive research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of my fellowship with the Clore Leadership Programme.

I wanted to learn more about the barriers preventing access for working-class audiences. And as I travelled round the country speaking to theatres, artists and audience members, I was struck by the fact that much of the received wisdom about why those audiences were staying away is wrong.

Many assume working-class people are put off by the ticket price, but the evidence suggests this is not the case

Many assume the most powerful force keeping people out of the auditorium is the ticket price. But the evidence suggests this is not true. Oliver Mantell of the Audience Agency pointed me to studies that have shown “removing price barriers didn’t increase the percentage [of those] from working-class backgrounds attending – it made the usual suspects attend more often and to a wider range of things”.

So if it isn’t price that is primarily keeping people out, then what is it? The answer lies deeply rooted in the very foundations of the theatres – both in terms of their physical infrastructure and the rituals that surround the event itself.

Marketing language can be excluding. As Ruth Puckering, director of communications at Hull Truck, told me, a word like ‘matinee’ will mean nothing to someone who has never been to a theatre before and can sound intimidating.

Beyond this, the whole front-of-house experience can feel alien: the atmosphere of the bar, the food that is served and the prices – all these elements send out signals about who should and shouldn’t feel comfortable in those spaces.

Indeed, barriers can exist even before a potential audience member has got anywhere near a venue. Lynette Linton, a working-class theatremaker from East London, described how, because her family never went to the theatre, her first experience came through school.

But before each trip her teachers would say: “You need to be absolutely quiet, don’t make any noise and don’t eat anything.” It was, she argues, as if they were saying: “Be the exact opposite of who you are.” And so: “Of course you’re going to feel uncomfortable in that place.”

If theatres feel ‘alien’ and ‘uncomfortable’ to people, then the solution is to work much harder at generating a feeling of familiarity for new and working-class audiences.

This might mean programming work on themes that people already have a connection with – sport resonates strongly, as do stories that have a clear local connection or titles that are well known beyond the theatre world.

Or it can mean taking a highly personal approach to marketing. Katie Walker, marketing officer at Theatre Royal Stratford East, often employs a team to leaflet the local area and says that she always tells them that it is “better to spend 30 minutes talking to one person than to hand out 30 flyers”.

And there are more surprising solutions too. One of the most effective strategies for drawing in a more socially diverse audience is to be a welcoming place for kids.

As Mantell explains, this is because children simply do not see different places as being intimidating in the same way that adults do. By going into a space, they can then make their parents feel as if they too have permission to go in. Annabel Turpin of the ARC in Stockton agrees and describes children as a “massive passport into the building”.

Of course, to really build long-term relationships, even more radical steps will be required. Entrenched in the thinking of so much discussion around class and theatre is an ‘us and them’ mentality.

This will only change if venues really ask themselves the difficult questions and open up their own management and employment structures – from the boards that govern to the artists who are commissioned.

As austerity continues to bite and divisions over Brexit (which often fall along class lines) become ever more entrenched, achieving this will not be easy. But if theatres don’t make a concerted effort to reshape themselves as more inclusive spaces, then they will only exacerbate these divisions further.

So while the idea of creating a truly diverse and egalitarian shared space might feel increasingly impossible, so too is its need becoming ever more urgent.

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