Theatre Critic and Journalist

Recession has made British audiences more conservative, says playwright

Recession has made British audiences more conservative, says playwright

Published in The Guardian, 09.02.2012

British theatre audiences have become more conservative since the recession, the Olivier award-winning playwright Simon Stephens has claimed.

In an interview with the website TheatreVoice, Stephens said: “I think people’s taste for theatre, in the past three years, has shifted more towards the commercial and the accessible.”

Claiming to find the change in audience behaviour “curious and troubling”, the playwright, whose recent plays include Wastwater and Punk Rock, argued that it relates directly to the current economic climate.

“The years, from say 1996 to 2006, were years of comparative affluence, safety, comfort, and you look at the theatre that was being made; it was theatre that was searching, savage, violent, sexually dark, psychologically dark. So at a time of affluence, audiences seem drawn to an artform that was kind of difficult.”

“The defining plays of the end of the 90s were, say, Blasted and Shopping and Fucking. The defining plays of the last three years are possibly Jerusalem, Enron and One Man, Two Guvnors,” he continued. “The fundamental actions of [all three plays], it strikes me, is to entertain, to uplift, to inspire, to tickle.”

The commercial sector has regularly defied the recession since it began, with the Society of London Theatre announcing record-breaking West End revenue for the past nine years. However, the number of attendees have dipped each year since 2009.

By contrast, Stephens admitted that ticket sales for The Trial of Ubu, his latest play currently playing at the Hampstead Theatre, have been “really poor”, and suggested a number of possible factors, including mixed reviews and recent cold weather. At last Saturday evening’s performance, which coincided with snowfall, Stephens estimated that 54 people were in the 277-seat auditorium.

Stephens stressed the importance of experimental theatre, despite it being “difficult to sell”. He continued: “It’s urgent that the state-subsidised theatres continue to stage work that is not going to find an audience,” he said, before joking that they “should be playing to 30%, because that’s what state subsidy is for.”

In ArtsProfessional magazine’s 2010 survey, in which a fifth of respondents self-identified as leaders of an arts organisation, 41% said they would programme more “popular” work as a result of the recession, while 37% anticipated reducing the amount of “challenging” work they commissioned.

Edward Hall, artistic director of Hampstead Theatre, said: “The Trial of Ubu is not a sell-out, but continues to provoke and delight those who see it – and is indicative of the form-breaking work that any theatre that holds the impulse of new writing at its centre should aspire to.”

Photograph: Karen Robinson

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