Now, I like freebies as much as the next recently-graduated student, and so at first glance, Arts Council England’s new free tickets for under-26s scheme sounds like a god-send. Well, if Andy Burnham is your god. I love theatre but can rarely afford it at the moment, what with living in the sticks* where theatre is limited and thus having to add train fare to any ticket price. Two years of free tickets at any one of 95 venues across the country (which are currently looking like being pretty concentrated in the big smoke on account of there being so bloody many theatres in London), starting in March, when I will have reached the ripe old age of 22. Sounds pretty bloody good, especially when you read that theatres that sign up will have to guarantee a small percentage of freebies for every show, and that there is no limit to how many different shows one can see.
However, therein lies the problem. For starters, canny, early-rising bastards like me will snaffle all the free seats before most arty people are out of bed and lighting their first gauloise of the day. Look at ‘Kids’ Week’. A London-based, idea: one week in the summer holidays is Kids’ Week, and West End theatres offer a free child ticket (or possibly two…) with every paying adult. Brilliant – kids get to go to the theatre which I am massively in favour of, and there is one less day in the yawning chasm of summer hols. But, Kids’ Week tickets are severely limited, and sell out in minutes via a confusing and poorly staffed phone line. I think I managed to get a freebie to one event in the four years I was eligible and in London. And that’s the other problem: ‘kids’ covers all under-16s, but the freebie is reliant on having a full paying adult with you. Not only does the adult ticket price for a West End show immediately exclude a large swathe of the population, but the scheme also supposes that every interested child will have an adult willing and able to take them. I’m not advocating sending your 7-yr-old off to Shaftesbury Ave alone, but I see nothing wrong with allowing a group of young teenagers to go to a matinee together without adult supervision.
Continuing down this route, the ACE scheme sounds lovely in principle, in that it offers 16-26s those freebies, but why stop at 26? A representative sample of the population (the other people in my arts magazine office!) are angry that it excludes over 26s – why not have a salary criteria rather than an age criteria? Hell, if I continue to work in the arts I’d be all for the low-waged being given priority treatment! Furthermore, there are some serious economic considerations that seem to have been swept under the carpet. If anyone under 26 is eligible for a free ticket, how are ACE going to collect data about whose bums are sitting on those seats? I’m assuming (fairly, I think, given its track record) that ACE will need to tick boxes in order to justify the money. (Speaking of which, in what world will £2m cover 95 venues offering free seats?) So, people like me who love theatre but are generally broke are likely to snap up the freebies. Given that I actually budget in order to treat myself to shows I really want to see – or persuade friends that what I really want for my birthday is to be taken to Hamlet – a free seat I plonk myself down in is a seat’s worth of revenue lost for that theatre and that show. I’m not suggesting that no-one new to theatre will take ACE up on its generous offer, but the question that is clamourously echoing across the arts sector at the moment is how to keep newly converted theatre-goers attending once the freebies run out. Any ideas?