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David Brownlee: Crisis in regional theatre ticket sales? That’s not what the data says

When hit West End musicals such as The Lion King (left) and Matilda the Musical (above) tour the UK, high box office for large presenting venues pushes up average ticket sales nationwide. Photo: Tristram Kenton When hit West End musicals such as The Lion King (left) and Matilda the Musical (above) tour the UK, high box office for large presenting venues pushes up average ticket sales nationwide. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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UK Theatre’s sales data has been widely interpreted as a symptom of an ailing industry, but David Brownlee says the figures are skewed by a drop in lucrative touring musicals and that regional venues remain in rude health

I’m delighted to see how much coverage has been generated by the release of UK Theatre’s aggregate sales figures for 2017. However, it’s surprising that so many people seem to think they point to a current or imminent crisis: that the data suggests regional ticket prices are becoming unaffordable and that cuts to subsidised theatres mean audience numbers are collapsing. And if it’s not price rises, it’s Brexit that’s causing the catastrophe.

Slump in regional theatre attendance leads to warning over rising ticket prices

Concerns about the impact of unprecedented cuts in national and particularly local government funding over the last eight years are entirely understandable, but now we have had the chance to do a bit more analysis of the data, the stories emerging seem to be very different from the ones I’ve been reading in recent weeks.

Before we delve into the data, let me ask a simple question: how would you describe a UK regional theatre? Is it a large commercial presenting house that hosts touring West End musicals or a 100-seat studio space? Is it a mid-scale local authority-run venue putting on one-nighters, or the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon?

Of course, regional theatre in the UK is all these things and more. The diversity of venue sizes and business models is one of the things that makes it great and for it to continue to flourish all parts of the theatre ecosystem need to be fit and healthy.

When UK Theatre started collecting comprehensive sales data from its member venues in 2012, it reflected this diversity by categorising auditoriums into different types. The yield achieved in a studio space will always be a fraction of the yield of a touring musical, so why bother comparing apples with oranges? Instead, the decision was made to split the data into eight separate categories based on type of venue.

One of these categories – large presenting houses with a capacity of over 1,000 – accounts for approximately 10% of the number of performances annually, but about 60% of overall aggregate UK Theatre box office income. That means that any fluctuations in this (largely unfunded) category of venues is likely to have a major impact on the overall sales figures for the year.

Anyone with an understanding of this scale of touring would expect annual figures to vary: some years there are lots of big tours, some years there are fewer. Since 2013, we’ve seen annual sales figures rise then fall then rise then fall. There was a dip in 2017: 260,546 fewer tickets were sold than 2016. This decline in the large presenting house category represented 94% of the overall fall in ticket sales reported across the eight venue types.

While audiences fluctuate significantly year-on-year, the average percentage of seats filled is more consistent

While income and audiences fluctuate significantly year-on-year for these big presenting houses, the average percentage of seats filled is far more constant, ranging from just 63%-67%. Houses do not tend to be significantly less full in a lean year – but there are fewer performances, particularly in the biggest venues.

So, how did all the other types of venue fair in 2017? Larger producing theatres and concert halls saw a small dip in tickets sold, but a modest growth in income. Presenting houses with 500-1,000 seats and smaller producing houses had a record-breaking year for both sales and box office income. Smaller (200-500 seat) presenting houses recorded a big drop in sales and income, mainly attributable to a substantial reduction in the number of performances. So it’s a mixed picture, but there’s still a lot to cheer.

And what about the poor customers having to put up with ever-increasing ticket prices?

Once inflation is taken into account, actually they didn’t increase in 2017: in real terms, the average price paid for a ticket fell by 2%. Adjusting for inflation, the average price paid has risen since 2013, but only by 2%.

As with the figures for audience numbers and box office income, changes in yield achieved at the big presenting houses have a significant impact on the overall figures for all venues. Adjusted for inflation, prices paid here haven’t risen at all since 2013, which means they must have risen more in other types of venue.

It would seem logical to expect increases in ticket price paid to have a negative impact on audience size. However, analysis of the UK Theatre data shows the reverse. The venue types with the biggest rises in audience numbers (producing houses of all scales and concert halls) have also recorded the steepest rises in average price paid. Those that have seen little or no increase in price paid (the largest and medium-scale presenting houses) recorded smaller audiences in 2017 than 2013.

It is clear that some parts of the sector that are most reliant on national and local government funding have recorded increases in the yields they’ve achieved, but there is no evidence in the UK Theatre figures to support the argument that this has had a negative impact on audience numbers.

As long as there are affordable, decent seats in every auditorium, should we be worried or thankful that so many of the public are happy to pay more for high-quality theatre on their local stages?

Yes, we should be keeping a keen eye on yields and making sure that no one is priced out of attending the theatre. And yes, we should be aware that Brexit is likely to have economic consequences that may affect regional theatre adversely. But the 2017 UK Theatre sales figures are not evidence for a crisis in subsidised producing theatre that has seen strong growth in average price paid and audience numbers over the past five years.

Long may this trend continue.

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