Fed up with venues adding unjustifiable fees on to tickets for its shows, Birmingham Stage Company is taking drastic action. Neal Foster explains why producers should follow suit.

Production shot: granny feeding grandson

Mark Douet

At the Birmingham Stage Company we recently went public about our decision to pull out of future presentations at Leeds Grand because of the £3 booking fee and £1 restoration fee that is levied on all tickets. This means that schoolchildren seeing our production of Gangsta Granny by David Walliams for £10 are then being asked to pay another £4 on top.

It feels like the problem is only going to get worse if producers comply with these charges

This effectively amounts to a 40% surcharge on every ticket. Given that schools often make a block booking of hundreds of seats at a time and then pay with a single cheque, it is beyond me how any venue can justify charging 30% simply for the privilege of booking those tickets. Since then we have pulled our shows from two more venues that have adopted similar policies.

Charges on low ticket prices

In all cases, the venues justify their charges by stating that theatre producers are demanding deals that are too much in favour of the producers. They have then strenuously assured me that they don’t include my company in that complaint, to which I could only ask why we and our audience are being punished because they have agreed poor deals with other promoters.

Furthermore, because our shows are predominantly for children, we necessarily charge a lower price for our tickets, which means the theatre’s fixed charges disproportionally disadvantage us. A booking fee of £3 on a £50 ticket is 6% of the ticket price. On a £15 ticket it’s 20%. But the venue makes no distinction. Once VAT, credit card commission, royalties and the venue’s share is deducted, it doesn’t leave much for the company that produced the show.

We rely 100% on ticket sales for our income – we don’t have investors, sponsors or funding. With the odd exception, this is the way it’s been for our entire 25-year history.

Theatre companies can help set the ticket prices with the venues and ask for promotions and discounts where necessary, but none of this changes the ticketing fees that are controlled by the venues. In the case of Leeds, we unilaterally dropped our school ticket price from £12 to £10 to make the ticket more affordable, but the venue refused to reduce their ticket fees.

It feels like the problem is only going to get worse if producers comply with these charges. None of the venues in question have been able to justify to me a surcharge of 30 to 40% on a child’s ticket. These are the very children we are hoping will populate our theatres in the years to come.

We were not surprised to find that only a third of the auditorium had been filled on our school performances in Leeds – they simply couldn’t afford to come. I asked one of the other venues that, if they didn’t think a 30% surcharge on a child’s ticket was excessive, what would they say was excessive? I’m still waiting for the answer.

Affordable theatre

Theatre should not become a luxury event. It should be affordable to every stratum of society without them having to forsake other cultural events or save up over a long period. We don’t want only the rich and middle class to be able to afford theatre because it’s precisely those from lower incomes who most need the inspiration that drama can give them.

Children of all backgrounds need to experience the greater world, wider possibilities, challenges and arguments that theatre can present to them in a safe environment. A child’s imagination is the most valuable thing they possess and it needs to be cherished and encouraged at every opportunity, which is exactly what theatre does so brilliantly.

I personally have always been up for the fight against what I perceive to be unfairness. This is one of those battles that I am determined to pursue. 

Neal Foster is Actor/Manager of the Birmingham Stage Company.

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