Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Keep Theatre Cheap

While I like to complain that things in London are wildly expensive (Ten pounds for a sandwich?!), there is one exception: theatre is cheap.  At the National Theatre, tickets to “Hamlet” actually cost 10 pounds (the price of certain sandwiches).

Cheap theatre tickets are possible because of how London theatre is funded: the two sectors of the London theatre are the profit-making sector, which encompasses the West End (think Broadway), and the subsidized sector, which encompasses basically everything else. Arts Council England, one of the major sources of funding for the subsidized sector, is part of the UK government’s Department for Culture, Education and Sports, and sponsors individual projects as well as the running costs (i.e. salaries, publicity) of off-West End venues and theatre companies.

Corporate sponsorships and private endowments also contribute to the subsidized sector, but not to the extent that they do in the United States. England is a shining example of government arts funding.  We should be emulating them; they’re doing something right here. England should not be emulating us–which is why these cuts worry me.

In October, the English government’s spending review resulted in a 30 percent cut to Arts Council England’s budget, with a 24 percent cut overall to the Department for Culture, Education and Sports spread out over the next three years. According to The Guardian, the cuts will begin to affect arts organizations this April.

American theatre isn’t in a great place right now.  Theatre in the United States is, and has been for years, referred to as a dying art form. In order to save it, we should take a page from England’s book and make theatre that’s worth seeing, at prices that won’t cost us an arm and a leg.

We should push harder for the development of new works. We should make ticket prices cheap and get young people into the theatre. Then maybe this terrible trend of adapting Hollywood for the stage will end; maybe young people will spend their money to see a play rather than “The Roommate” or whatever crap is playing right now. Then maybe theatre won’t be that perpetually dying entity.

Public funding makes a difference and influences the type of theatre that exists in London and the kinds of people who go to the theatre.  For instance, in London there are several popular theaters dedicated solely to the production of new work.  Two notable examples are The Royal Court Theatre (birthplace of “The Rocky Horror Show”, as well as work by Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh: to name a few) and The Bush Theatre, which is subsidized entirely by public funding.

The average age of theatergoers is much younger in London than in the United States; usually when I see plays in the states, the age range of the audience is from middle-aged to very, very old.  The environment of London theatre is different, too: it’s more social, more relaxed. “People go to see theatre [in England] like they’re going to the movies,” one of my professors here explained.  And often the ticket price is less than that of a movie–with concessions (e.g. student, under 26, unemployed). Shows usually cost between five to 12 pounds.  These prices could only be achieved with the help of taxpayers’ money.

The quality of the work differs as well and illustrates the implications of public funding versus private funding.  More strings are attached to private money.  Public money not only allows but demands theatres to take risks; plays are assessed on the basis of their artistic merit and ambitiousness, rather than their ability to turn a profit.  As a result, London theatre in the subsidized sector tends to be riskier, bolder and more experimental than American theatre.

And a symbiotic relationship can exist between the subsidized sector and the profit-making sector. The subsidized sector will create material for the West End, which will make money that can then be funneled back into the subsidized sector.  For example, “War Horse”, which is playing in the West End right now (also, a film adaptation directed by Spielberg is scheduled to be released later this year), started out as a National Theatre play.  In fact, many shows on Broadway started out as off-Broadway shows.

I understand why they’re making the cuts: it’s partially because of the hugely expensive 2012 Olympics, but also because this coalition government seems to be trying to emulate the U.S. in sending the message that they don’t care about the arts.  By cutting public funds for the arts, they expect theatres to rely increasingly on private money (i.e. corporate sponsorships and endowments).

Obviously the theatre industry will survive these cuts.  But in what form?  Will we look back on this moment in 20 years and think wistfully, “England was the last bastion of real, good, cheap theatre?”   Will we struggle to name the last play we saw, only to give up, shrug our shoulders and say, “Look, this is interesting, but I need to go if I’m going to catch the 7:30 showing of ‘The Roommate 4: Return of the Revenge of the Roommate’?”   I really, really hope not.

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