Mark Cornell’s forceful words about audience experience mark a welcome intervention from the Ambassador Theatre Group boss.
Since joining as ATG chief executive in 2016, Cornell has been fairly reticent about speaking out on industry issues, but – as UK theatre’s largest operator and biggest employer – it’s crucial he engages in these debates, especially in the context of an event such as the UK Theatre conference.
And he is right: audiences in 2019 expect more from their nights out than 10, 20 or 30 years ago – especially when they pay top dollar – and theatres are struggling to keep up. Not only has cinema moved on significantly – there are now many chains such as the Everyman Group or Curzon where it’s possible to sit in comfort and get a decent glass of wine while watching a movie – but there have been similar advances at sports and music arenas. It is possible to get much greater and better choice of food and drink, for example, at most football matches and gigs than at the many theatres, and the seats are sometimes more comfortable too.
There are a few exceptions, but they are rare: which is why there was such a big reaction to the innovation of interval madeleines and generous toilet facilities at London’s Bridge Theatre when it opened: we are not used to operators thinking about these things.
And they are important. As much as the play’s the thing, it is often the overall experience that matters most to regular theatregoers: Nicholas Hytner recounted in his memoirs how when he was at the National Theatre and met members of the public they tended to want to talk about its restaurants or car parking, while Rachel O’Riordan has recalled how one of the first things she did on becoming artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff was replace the fridges in the bar so people could get a cold glass of wine.
But the big elephant in the room for Cornell is that he, perhaps more than anyone else in theatre, is in a position to address these problems: ATG operates more theatres across the UK than anyone else.
While it has begun improving audience comfort at some venues – especially in the US, where it undertook a major revamp of the Lyric – there is a perception that it lags behind its rivals in the UK. For example Cameron Mackintosh has spent many tens of millions refurbishing his West End theatres and Andrew Lloyd Webber has embarked on a generous revamp of Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith