Paper theatre tickets will not single-handedly doom our planet if not stopped immediately. But they are part of a wider problem of paper waste, and these days seem increasingly outmoded. From planes to films to art exhibitions, the option to choose electronic tickets is ubiquitous. In theatre, not so much.
This December will mark the two-year anniversary of Hamilton’s West End run, and another, slightly more niche milestone for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster: that of its ‘paperless’ ticketing system. But now it is going back to plain old paper tickets. Why?
It’s because the mega-musical only ditched paper as a measure to combat touting and now demand has simmered down it has brought paper tickets in. The regression of Hamilton is emblematic of an industry that seems pretty sluggish in catching up with the times.
While it’s rare to find events that have completely ditched physical tickets, a paper ticket remains the only option in virtually every major UK theatre. As far as I’m aware, London’s Old Vic is the only large UK theatre to have a fully digital system where you’re emailed a PDF you show on your phone, and it has been explicit that this is for environmental reasons.
To its credit, corporate behemoth Ticketmaster will let punters go paperless if they book via its app (though not for Hamilton). But it hardly goes out of its way to encourage you to drop the paper when booking via its website. That it even offers this option is a testament to the sales from non-theatre tickets, where an electronic option is expected.
‘While change seems glacial, a bit of rooting around suggests it is coming’
I’ve been wary of using the term ‘e-ticket’ here: most agencies and several theatres, notably the Royal Shakespeare Company, offer something by that name, but only on a mandatory print-at-home basis – thus not in fact saving any waste.
Several theatres I contacted suggested their ticketing system was not up to a smooth on-the-night electronic performance. This is fair enough: in the greater scheme of things, most arts ticketing providers are small and new. On the other hand, a spokesperson for the Old Vic suggested ditching paper had been technically fairly easy – it uses a system called Tessitura, as do a lot of other major theatres that have noticeably not taken up the challenge.
The good news is that while change seems glacial, a bit of rooting around suggests it is coming. A spokesperson for the National Theatre (which also uses Tessitura) said it is hoping to launch electronic tickets in the early part of 2020. The Edinburgh Fringe, the third biggest ticketed event in the world with a ticketing system specifically founded to deal with its demands (Red61) – has pledged to have something in place by 2022, for its 75th anniversary.
Theatre has some bigger sins to atone for. But as a notionally forward-looking industry, it does look increasingly isolated in so rarely offering electronic tickets as an option – hopefully a few more big names added to the Old Vic’s fine example will get things moving.
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski