Live Performance Australia’s Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey for 2014 showed that 18.54 million tickets were sold live performance events in this period.
When we look at theatre, musical theatre, circus and physical theatre, this number is closer to 5.25 million tickets.
Despite what sounds like a healthy arts scene, straight theatre’s gross revenue fell from $119.65 million to $99.71 million, or by 16.7%, in 2014. Total tickets sold decreased by 18.3%, while the average ticket price increased slightly from $72.88 to $73.83. This significant decrease in the sale of tickets of straight theatre could be alarming, particularly given it was met with a slight increase in average ticket price.
Granted, the high-profile musical theatre productions we had in 2014 offset this in the overall scheme of things, but these two statistics could be pointing to a scary question – is straight theatre dying?
Are musicals helping more people access theatre, or are they killing plays?
Daily Review’s Ben Neutze said there’s a problem with musical theatre in Australia, particularly that commercial theatre is “in service of the artistic vision of wealthy white men from New York or London”. His piece has a strong argument, and he goes on to call the most recent tours of Grease and The Rocky Horror Show artistically dire. He believes: “if commercial musical theatre in Australia keeps opting for the inoffensive and serviceable over the genuinely transcendent it will eventually find itself with no audience at all”.
Musical theatre’s contribution grew significantly in 2014 and the high profile shows we had on – The Lion King, Les Misérables, Grease, Wicked, Strictly Ballroom and The Rocky Horror Show – definitely played a part in this. The gross revenue grew by 65.6 per cent from $193.39 million in 2013 to $320.34 million in 2014. Total tickets sold increased by 52.6 per cent. Tickets sold and revenue for musical theatre are the second largest contributors to live performance in Australia, following contemporary music.
The numbers simply don’t agree with the argument that commercial musical theatre will have no audience. Putting on these large shows increased attendance to musical theatre. Regardless of whether they have multi-layered artistic substance or are simply a fun night out, these big shows draw crowds and money to our theatres. Large-scale productions can help provide potential pathways for audiences to start exploring smaller, niche productions at venues such as Hayes, Malthouse or Belvoir. Subscription packages are being pushed more, with concession pricing playing to younger audiences. Theatre is there and seemingly accessible through subscriptions, so why isn’t it taking off? Perhaps we should be focusing more on what we can do to support our plays, rather than criticise musicals getting more Australians into theatres.
We fork out $73.83 on average to attend a show. If an actor is being paid the award minimum of $1123 a week, performing 8 shows a week, they earn $140 gross in that show. Granted, if you happen to be Anthony Warlow, you could probably ask for a substantially larger chunk than that.
At Melbourne’s Regent Theatre with 2162 seats, if it’s sold out with average priced tickets, it can bring in $160k in a single performance. Usually, these tickets are pricier. At Sydney’s Hayes Theatre with 111 seats, the income is $8195. Usually, these tickets are cheaper than average. It’s pretty easy to see why investors and producers want the big names in the big shows, though it doesn’t make it feel better or bring diversity onto the stage.
Another problem facing theatre is too many actors and not enough work. Entertainment Assist and Victoria University discovered that 63 per cent of performers earn less than the national minimum wage of $34,112. The same survey revealed only 12.8 per cent of those employed in the entertainment industry are full time. Increasingly, our talented stage actors are crossing over to other creative media in order to keep their creative juices flowing and a semi-stable bank account. Other performers keep their income coming in through retail or teaching.
One of our leading ladies, Christie Whelan Browne, has created her own cabaret shows, has an impressive credits list of on-screen parts and continues to deliver strong performances on our stages. She’s busy and remains as creative as possible and this is what it takes. This is becoming the norm for our theatre cast members.
So what exactly is the point of theatre? It’s expensive for us, and it’s unstable at best for cast and crew.
The point is the memories, the entertainment and the spectacle. It’s also the people.
As an audience member, how many people have you met and continue to know through attending theatre? Chances are, it probably isn’t that many. Why is it that once the curtain closes and the final bows finish, we go our own ways?
It doesn’t have to be this way and this might just make an impact on our attendance numbers.
What if at every show you attended from now on, you took someone you know doesn’t go to theatre? What if you introduced yourself to the strangers either side of you, saw how you got along, and if it works, agreed to find another show to go to together? You already know that there is some sort of common ground: you’re both in a theatre. Work out what it is that you’re both interested in, and if you hit it off, find the next show you’re both keen to see. Then when you get there, introduce yourselves to those strangers and expand your theatre-going group.
Theatre is better when you get to share it. The funny, sad, hysterical and momentous things that can and do happen in our theatres are made to share. That’s why there are so many seats. Share how shows make you feel. Did your friends pick up on something that you totally missed? Do you know a bit of trivia about the lead actor that could impress everyone?
Don’t be afraid to share opinions or to meet new people. Find that thing in common and go with it. You could meet a lifelong friend.
Find your group to get subscriptions with, push each other to see new things, buy the spontaneous rush tickets if you can and share your theatre experiences. This social theatre revolution could just be the thing we need to kick-start Australian theatre and reduce the time our theatres are dark.
After all, the 5.25 million tickets sold show a big chunk of us attending theatre already share one thing in common: we paid to see people give it their all for us. Surely that’s enough of a beautiful thing to start with?
The time has come to connect with people in theatres again, not just on social media. Australian theatre needs it.