Private Viewing: Change is part of a theatre’s life

Olivia Hallinan and Leon Ockenden (front centre) in Terence Rattigan's wartime drama Flare Path which is packing out the...

Olivia Hallinan and Leon Ockenden (front centre) in Terence Rattigan's wartime drama Flare Path which is packing out the New Wolsey Theatre. But, attendance at some shows early in the week is slow but over-subscribed at the weekends. Is it time to rethink the theatrical week? - Credit: Archant

Change is scary but often change is good. It is necessary for life to develop. Arts editor Andrew Clarke looks at change in the theatre

Haydn Oakley and Brian Capron inThe Smallest Show on Earth, a new musical with songs by Irving Berlin, which enjoyed good...

Haydn Oakley and Brian Capron inThe Smallest Show on Earth, a new musical with songs by Irving Berlin, which enjoyed good audiences at the Colchester Mercury. Is there a case for running shows on Sunday and making the Monday the day off? - Credit: Archant

Change is often seen as a dangerous word. People are naturally resistant to change. They are suspicious of it. Change, for some reason, is always seen as a bad thing, which is strange because it’s happening all the time. Nothing stays the same for very long, but good change is rarely referred to as change, it’s often given euphemistic terms like re-launch or re-development – or the most exciting of all: ‘new’. A re-launch only becomes referred to as ‘change’ when it all goes horribly wrong.

How often do you hear the phrases: “Oh, I don’t like it, change is in the air.” or “I don’t like it when they change things. Why don’t they leave things alone?”

But, successful change happens all the time. The creative arts thrives on change. It needs change to survive. Change is renewal. It is recharging creative batteries.

The music industry only exists because of change. Bands writing and recording new songs, new albums and going on new tours. Cinema too is dominated by the release of new films each week. People are frequently anxiously awaiting the release of the latest blockbuster. Television unleashes new dramas, new documentaries, new panel shows on a daily basis. As series come to an end, they are replaced by something else which may well also become an audience favourite.

Even for long-running shows change is an essential ingredient in their longevity. Doctor Who wouldn’t still be with us if William Hartnell hadn’t been replaced by Patrick Troughton in 1966.

Coronation Street wouldn’t still dominate ITV’s schedules if it had not moved on from the trials and tribulations of Ena Sharples and Bet Lynch.

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Theatre also renews itself each season with a mix of plays, some new, some revivals but in theatre terms I am starting to fear that perhaps a more fundamental change is needed. Maybe society is changing, habits are changing or maybe austerity is lingering in the east for longer than elsewhere but for much of this year I have been alarmed at the empty seats in theatres at the start of the week.

It may well be a blip but it is not unusual for theatres to feel a bit breezy at the start of the week, even for popular long-running shows. The crazy thing is at the end of the week people can’t get tickets for love nor money. I have had people complain to me that they can’t get tickets to popular shows on a Friday or Saturday. When I say there were seats going begging on Monday or Tuesday, which is when I tend to review shows, they look at me as if I have two heads.

The inference is clear that people, for some reason, are increasingly reluctant or unable to go out to the theatre at the start of the week. There will always be must-see shows that buck this trend, Sweet Charity at the New Wolsey was a recent week-long winner and the Mercury’s critically acclaimed The Smallest Show on Earth is currently doing well but even on hugely popular shows like these, if you really wanted to see it you could almost certainly get in on a Monday or Tuesday.

But, for less high-profile productions or for touring shows the change in theatre-attendance habits is a worry. A couple of informal chats with bar staff on recent Monday and Tuesday press nights at varying theatres across the country confirms a worrying trend.

When faced with my comment: “It’s a great show. It’s a pity there are so many empty seats tonight,” it was met with almost the

same comment: “We rarely get more than this on a Monday/Tuesday”.

So it would appear that change is needed. Good change. Work demands, I suspect, are at the root of changing patterns in theatre attendance. Towards the end of the week, play-going remains as popular as ever and therefore perhaps there is room for a little restructuring.

Theatres currently use Sundays to present one-off or special performances which help extend their reach and further diversify audiences – which is great but could these niche productions be moved to a Monday?

The Sunday would then be free to accommodate further weekend audiences wanting tickets to see the main production. I realise this idea flies in the face of centuries of theatrical tradition but I would argue that it is something worth thinking about if it prevents good productions playing to half-empty houses on a Monday and turning people away on Friday and Saturday.

Change is never easy and theatre needs to get as many bums on seats as it can if it is to weather the next round of Arts Council funding cuts.