Why family audiences really are the future of theatre!

In 2012 the Office for National Statistics and the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport published Taking Part, a report drawn from research into the UK’s leisure habits.

For those of us in the theatre industry, the results proved a fact that most of us already had a pretty good idea of – namely, that theatre is losing out to cinema, and by a huge margin. One statistic stood out above all others. According to the report, whilst over a quarter of adults attend the cinema at least once a month, more than three quarters of adults had not been to see a play or a musical in the last year.

There are many factors contributing to this, the most obvious of which is surely cost – made even more prohibitive when it’s a family outing. Four tickets to a West End show could easily run to over two hundred pounds, and that’s before you’ve paid for transport or parking and dinner for the family.

Equally, for many adults, theatre still carries the stigma of an educational activity, something that they first encountered in the company of their English teacher on an organised trip, as a way to animate a novel that they didn’t enjoy reading in the first place. It may have got them out of double maths, but it certainly didn’t convey the transporting power of theatre.

I’ve been misquoted talking about this before and it’s important to say that I think theatre visits with school are essential and a fantastic part of any course, and the reduction in school visits to the theatre in the face of timetable pressures and the pursuit of results in so-called core subject areas is short sighted and a major loss to young people’s broad education. Sometimes students will be lucky enough to see a show that offers a light-bulb moment in their struggle to access a novel or a play in the classroom and also show them just what theatre can do, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.

However, if those teenagers watching Macbeth had been going to the theatre since they were very young, they would see the magic when it’s there and not write off theatre if it’s not.

Whilst schools can help the situation, the obligation to turn the tide, to establish theatre as a pastime as regular and instinctive as the cinema, lies with the theatres themselves. Theatres, and particularly local theatres, have the power to change the public’s perception of what a trip to see a play or musical is all about, to change it from something that people do at great expense for a special occasion to something they consider doing as readily as eating out, going to the cinema or a gig, or watching a sports event.

At Greenwich Theatre that’s just what we have been doing over the past decade or so. Attracting parents with children, from as young as possible, means that when those children become teenagers they may still head for their local theatre on a Saturday night, and on into adulthood there is every chance that they will continue to support and to enjoy theatre. Without that security, what future is there for theatre aside from the major once-a-year birthday present or the international tourist attraction that the West End increasingly represents?

Every school holiday, and increasingly during term time as well, the programme at Greenwich Theatre will include a number of family shows, with ticket prices held wherever possible in line with cinema prices. The Easter holiday programme includes the Comedy Club Kids, a fantastic recreation of the raucous joy of a comedy club with some of the country’s leading stand-up comedians performing material designed for younger audiences. We celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival with puppetry, live music and elements of Beijing Opera in Yeh Shen, the Chinese version of Cinderella that existed a thousand years before the European version that we all know so well. Then Adventures With Sam marks the first visit to Greenwich for Stories and More, taking us first onto the farm and then into space in a pair of theatrical adventures.

Yeh Shen

The other thing that theatres must do, if we are to succeed in shifting the perception of theatregoing, is to cater for a range of ages in our family programming.

If we attract a new audience of twenty year olds then it’s likely they will still broadly like the same kind of shows thirty years later, so the investment in marketing and programming to bring that audience to the theatre has huge value in building a relationship that can last for decades. By contrast, the audience for shows aimed at 3-5 year olds needs to be rediscovered every few years by venues, and without programming in place for 6-8 year olds, and then 9-12 year olds and so on, the work and investment in first bringing those families to the theatre can be lost, and the magic that those young children found in the theatre can be rapidly forgotten.

That’s why Sam’s adventures have been programmed for the youngest children, along with How The Koala Learnt To Hug on Mother’s Day or The Cat In The Hat during May half-term, but then our comedy club and Yeh Shen are aimed at ages 6+, and later in the season Flintlock Theatre will bring their madcap version of Don Quixote to Greenwich, created for adults and children aged 10+. As long as they enjoyed the shows, we have to hope that those families who were bringing their young children to see shows like Adventures With Sam five years ago are keen to continue their relationship with us and see Don Q this year – and more beyond.

Don Q

There is another plea inherent to this argument. If it’s true that the future of local and regional theatres is dependent on us standing up against the glossy hi-tec extension of TV offered by the cinema, then it’s equally true that much of the future of the West End is dependent on the success of those local and regional theatres. Dennis Kelly, who wrote the West End hit Matilda with Tim Minchin, had his first plays produced at the tiny Theatre 503 in Clapham, and then at Battersea Arts Centre and at Hampstead Theatre. Alex Jennings, currently playing the iconic Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Theatre Royal Drury Lane started his career acting in regional repertory theatre. As Lyn Gardner wrote in a 2012 Guardian blog “We need to work at the roots. If we don’t, we will end up with the top of the pyramid and nothing beneath.” And the top of a pyramid with no foundation is destined to collapse.

Often this is made into an argument about funding, about why theatres need government funding to continue, and certainly that’s true – theatre should be funded just as much as libraries, art galleries and museums should be funded, as a part of a rounded cultural offer available to people in this country – but theatres have an obligation too. Recognising the long-term importance of family audiences, providing high quality shows for them not only when their children are very young but as they grow up too, building lasting relationships that can continue into adulthood, is the only sure way to secure the future of this industry.

It is an industry that added £5.9 billion worth of gross value to the UK economy in 2011, but it is an industry that can only survive on a foundation of shows for, and relationships with, families and children.

About James Haddrell

James has been Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre on Crooms Hill since 2007 and is rightly credited with the Theatre as you see it today, developing young artists and producing a large amount of work in house.

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