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‘A Night Less Ordinary’ could become more commonplace if venues can make the ACE scheme work, reports

Steps lead up to a theatre in a box inside an old building
Night scene of the National theatre, lit with pink and blue lighting
The exterior of the Courtyard theatre, people mill around outside on a summers day

The Arts Council England (ACE) initiative to give away 618,000 free theatre tickets over the next two years will mean “young people have their lives changed by ground breaking and inspirational theatre”, according to Alan Davey, Chief Executive of ACE. The new scheme was launched two weeks ago, under the banner ‘A Night Less Ordinary’, and aims to have a lasting impact on the theatre-going habits of young people. But just how much difference will the free tickets make to theatres’ tireless efforts to appeal to new audiences? Ed Vaizey, Shadow Culture Minister, wants to know if it is “a gimmick or a genuine policy”, and says that while “no one would oppose a plan to open up access to our theatres… this proposal has been rushed through without proper consideration”.

First reactions
Judging by information that AP has gathered from 20 participating theatres of various sizes and types, most theatres support the scheme, but the administration associated with it has generated a heavy workload, especially for small venues and touring theatre companies. ACE guidelines stipulate that for every ticket sold, a name and postcode must be taken, so that a subsequent analysis of box office data can shed some light on the geographic spread of audiences. Fair enough: ACE is using this is a pilot scheme and the data is needed for evaluation. However, although most theatres we spoke to supported the scheme, their box office staff were feeling the pressure. Clare Simpson, Marketing Director at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, said that they are proud of their scheme, but “it is an administrative nightmare”. This was a common feeling, and ACE’s claims about the scheme’s administration sometimes conflict with the view from the box office. An ACE spokesperson said that the scheme is “keeping data collection at ‘point of sale’ to a minimum”, but for many box offices, the fact that all free tickets have to be processed over the phone rather than through their websites is proving difficult. ACE also requires all tickets to be collected individually from the box office with photo ID, which means theatres have seen long queues before shows start. One box office staff member at a large London theatre said, “the new system is incredibly time consuming, and I’m not looking forward to having to deal with it”.
Despite the obvious teething problems, theatres in general are largely positive about the project. Almost all of those I spoke to are adapting the ACE scheme to suit their marketing strategies, touring schedules, budgets and capabilities. Most are using it to build on existing student or young people’s deals rather than offering free tickets in splendid isolation. Adrian Grady, of the Mercury Theatre in Colchester summed up the general mood when he said, “It is a great opportunity to enhance and build on what we have started.” Every marketing officer was keen to emphasise that working hard to engage new audiences is something they already do, and that the ACE scheme needs to fit into their current outreach and audience development efforts.
Costs and risks
Although Grady is keen to accentuate the positive, the scheme could end up costing theatres money. Simpson points out that although the Royal Exchange is giving away 10,000 tickets after receiving a £30,000 grant, this does not mean they are generating £3 in revenue for every ticket. “If we had that money purely to market the scheme, we could do a lot… [but] this money needs to go some way towards compensating the box office.” Even if they had £3 for every ticket given away, it “doesn’t get anywhere near our usual yield”.
For shows playing to less than full houses, there is a fine line between the scheme being a valuable marketing tool and a costly one. Simpson points out that “the trick for us is to encourage higher attendance, rather than converting those who already come to stop paying”. Regular theatre goers might be put off paying if they know there are free tickets available but they can’t get their hands on one, resulting in a tendency to wait for the next release of freebies rather than booking there and then. Furthermore, if a new theatre goer consistently fails to get hold of a free ticket, this may whip up negative publicity for the venue and could lead to young people feeling excluded – the opposite of what is intended. There is also a possibility that they will see a free ticket as without value, and will therefore feel less pressure to turn up after booking it. ACE is trying to pre-empt this by warning that anyone who defaults on one booking may be excluded from the scheme elsewhere.
Different approaches
As far as audiences are concerned, maybe it’s too early to tell whether the scheme has the potential to turn the notoriously indifferent under-26 age group into enthusiastic theatre goers. In a highly unscientific poll of Cambridge residents, conducted last Saturday outside Topshop, only nine of the 100 young people we asked had heard of the scheme. Only one venue in Cambridge is participating, so perhaps awareness is higher elsewhere. In London, the National Theatre is giving away 15,000 tickets, and has pledged to give them to 15,000 different people. Sarah Hunt, Head of Marketing at the National, emphasised that “we want as many people as possible to get a free ticket”, and that after getting new people in it is “up to a theatre how to continue the relationship”. This means just one free ticket per person, but by signing up to its Entry Pass scheme, all under 26s can then book £5 seats for the next two years. While the scope of the National’s scheme – and those at other theatres where you can only book one ticket at a time – is clearly ambitious, it does have its drawbacks. For example, there are no guarantees that ticket-buyers will be able to sit with a friend. For many, sitting alone could make the idea of a night at the theatre a whole lot less appealing.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse is trying a different approach. Every young person can book up to five different shows for free, meaning that someone who sees a play that they don’t enjoy can try again. When their five free tickets have been used up, they can then book another five tickets for £5 each, and then a further 10 tickets for £10 each. This ensures that those who enjoy the freebies are encouraged to come back, and that by the time they are asked to pay full price for a ticket, the jump from £10 to full price is not so great.
All’s well that ends well?
So, why are theatres bothering to run this “clunky”, time-consuming and revenue-losing scheme? Perhaps because it is getting new bums on old seats. Rosie Cross of the Highlights Rural Touring Scheme recalled, “One volunteer at our launch event said ‘I feel like Father Christmas’,” and it is not hard to see her point of view. Lighthouse’s Box Office has been “noticeably busier”, the entire allocation of free tickets for this season at the Oxford Playhouse and Young Vic has sold out, and the RSC has given away over 1,000 tickets already – more than half to first-time RSC-goers. These are all good signs. But, as Simpson points out, “the crunch will come when the money has gone and the scheme has ended and the theatres have to find the time and the budget to convert that potential into a lifelong audience”. If every person who receives a free ticket falls in love with theatre and becomes a paying customer in two years’ time, that would be a very positive outcome. If not, then theatres could spend thousands of pounds and a lot of effort marketing a scheme to people who would have attended anyway.

Eleanor Turney is Editorial Co-ordinator at ArtsProfessional.

The following letters relate to the free tickets scheme: It's an age thing, Unanswered questions.

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