Taking the risk out of theatre

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

How do theatres attract new audiences? That is a perennial question asked by venue staff, producers, practitioners and funders, as without those vital new audiences theatres face a finite future. At the same time, where do the new shows and new artists come from and why would a venue programme them? There is a constant tension between the need to showcase new talent and ensure that the next generation of artists can survive their early careers, and the opposing challenge of bringing an audience to an untested piece of theatre. If nobody knows whether a show is going to be any good, why risk the ticket price on going to see it? There has to be a reason…

Much of my year is spent seeking out, developing and championing artists and companies presenting new work – shows like Autact Theatre’s The Duck, coming to the Greenwich studio in February and telling the story of a young woman who struggles to understand the world around her until an autism diagnosis makes everything make sense, or Red Cape’s Thunder Road, a bold, original dark comedy coming to the main house in March. However, these are not the shows to bring new theatregoers to Greenwich. Rather, to appeal to those potential customers who may not already visit the theatre, we need to present something that represents little risk for them, something which they know they will like, as a first step in building a relationship between venue and customer.

On 1st February we present Friend (The One With Gunther), a show that plays here after a sell-out Edinburgh Fringe run and ahead of an international tour. The hook for audiences is obvious. The global hit TV show Friends lasted for ten seasons over ten years, regularly appears in lists of the best TV shows of all time and was nominated for 62 Primetime Emmy Awards. Fifteen years after the final episode was aired, rumours of a reunion are as strong as they ever were. Anyone who likes Friends will immediately have a reason to come and see Friend here in Greenwich, whether they consider themselves a theatregoer or not.

Approaching the issue from another angle, the immersive hit The White Plague comes to Greenwich later in the season, with a limited capacity audience experiencing the story of a plague of blindness while blindfolded themselves. Arriving in Greenwich after an acclaimed run at the Landor Theatre two years ago, the show clearly has an appeal for those who love immersive experiences – anyone who has enjoyed a Secret Cinema event will know that The White Plague is for them – whether they define themselves as a theatregoer or not.

The White Plague imagines a city beset by a plague of blindness

These bridging shows are absolutely crucial for small theatres. In the West End, in large capacity theatres, a star actor or a Disney adaptation will provide the hook that audiences need to give the show a try, but with ticket prices now regularly breaking the £100 mark they will not create regular theatregoers that way. In smaller venues, welcoming new audiences to a show that they feel they already know and making sure they have a good time while they’re there gives those venues the strongest possible chance of converting a non-theatregoer into a regular. Hopefully those who come to see The White Plague might like the look of The Incident Room, another thriller but experienced in a more conventional way, and then progress to Thunder Road with its offbeat take on Thelma and Louise. Those who come to see Friend might take a risk on Revenge, a TV-style thriller directed by small screen favourite Louise Jameson before moving on to AE Comedy’s Witch Hunt.

All all we need is for people to regularly cross that bridge, to have a reason for a first visit and then a good enough reason to return, and theatre will have a strong future.

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