Feature: 2011 Theatre Trends – Musings from the stalls

“Statistics can be made to prove anything – even the truth.” ~Author Unknown

Ok, so statistics may be unreliable but what end of year round up is complete without them.

1 reviewer
189 productions
59 venues
127 Plays
31 Musicals
20 Shakespeare Productions
11 Pantomimes
3 Festivals
1 tent, 1 Camper Van, 1 water polo changing room …..

Can though a look at a years’ statistics provide any clue to the state of our theatres? Not really – this is but a small sample – but there are a few trends evident from theatres across the country. Some things that seem driven by the changing face of arts funding and some areas that venues need to look at to keep audiences satisfied in the coming year.

In no particular order here are a dozen areas that seem to have developed during 2011:

  • There’s a perceptible shift for programming to move to the smaller scale. While the mega-event productions will still garner the headlines there’s been a marked move to smaller shows. If this is a sign of a new direction or just budgetary constraints remains to be seen.
  • There has been much talk in 2011 about an audience’s reluctance to risk their hard earned cash on anything new, preferring to stick with well tested products and familiar brands – a long running musical, a revival of an old favourite play or a show based on an already known film franchise. However, step outside of the commercial West End and there’s an explosion of companies taking bold and brave steps with their work.
  • Audience expectations continue to grow. With the steady creep of ‘premium’ seating, theatregoers are expecting something more than a cramped, barely padded seat for their investment. Have venues kept up with audience expectation though?
  • Investment is still needed in that all important customer interface. How many times this year have venues been forced to apologise to customers when booking systems crashed? In an increasing online age does your box office system offer what your customers want?
  • Membership schemes have come in for criticism again this year, with the sheer volume of some membership schemes causing supply and demand problems that they were supposed to overcome. Antagonise your loyal customers and they will soon cancel memberships-time to review if your scheme meets actual expectations?
  • Social Media continues to change the way news is broken, shows reviewed and venues interact with their audiences – though some venues still have far to go in embracing the digital age.
  • The regions continue to provide the heartbeat of theatre, despite what some of our national newspapers would suggest (but that’s another story) providing genuinely high quality productions.
  • Despite the tough economic outlook and the ever increasing challenges of funding, theatre remains inventive and resourceful.
  • The thorny question of internships continues. While unpaid staff may seem the only option in cash-strapped times what is the long term impact on the arts? Can those vital elements of contacts and knowledge be maintained with a sting of short term appointments? Do we risk only reaching those who can afford to work with no or expense only income?
  • On the subject of volunteers and interns, while a workforce made up of low/non paid staff may look good on the balance sheet, what is the impact on your brand reputation if the service levels slip?
  • Collaboration and partnerships became the latest key words but it still remains to be seen how venues will put aside traditional rivalry and work together.
  • Customer service is often the unforgotten element in theatres. While some venues excel in making audiences feel welcome from the initial booking enquiry to the moment they leave after the show, others still seem to see audiences as an inconvenience to be tolerated at best. Venues that don’t have the customer at the heart of their operations will struggle in these competitive economic times.

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