Peter Crawley on the price of theatre tickets
How much are you willing to pay to go to the theatre? Does ¤30 sound a little steep? Is a free event somehow off-putting? Or, to go to another extreme, the example of Free Theatre Belarus, would you trade time in prison to exercise your right to free expression?
The contrast between the jaded economics of Irish theatre and the daring defiance of underground arts in a dictatorship couldn’t be sharper. But on one thing they seem to agree: in both cases the theatre is worth precisely what you’re willing to pay for it.
Not too long ago an online poll was circulated among theatre makers asking whether ticket prices were too low in Ireland. About 60 per cent percent said no. That’s the traditional thinking of theatre, one that sees every thronging cinema and glowing plasma screen as a powerful enemy, and believes that an audience needs every incentive to cross the threshold in the first place.
Such logic is behind National Culture Day, the government’s proposal to scrap entry charges for subsidised venues for a whole 24 hours a year, which seems a little parsimonious next to the UK’s proposal to do exactly the same thing for a whole week.
But there is another school of thought, now pushing tentatively at the ceiling of the price bracket, which says that if a show can’t hope to recoup its costs from the box-office, then keeping the price down actually devalues the work.
There couldn’t be a more extraordinary comparison than the Free Theatre Belarus, which stages secret performances in apartments and forests around Minsk and whose audiences know that they may pay for their attendance with their liberty.
Banned by the state, which, since 1994, has been under the near-dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, the company have found that police raids and arrests are a common toll for their assertion of free speech. “It happens pretty often,” said founding member Natalya Kolyada last week with grim humour during a public interview on the Project stage.
The stakes are even higher than that. Kolyada and director Vladimir Scherban were certain that two of their actors would lose their jobs at state theatre for having defied the authorities and performed in London last week. It was both inspiring and humbling to hear Scherban recount how he lost his job and apartment for directing Some Explicit Polaroids four years ago. “It was the end of my career,” he shrugged, “but it was more important to speak.”
Even the author of that play, Mark Ravenhill, one of the company’s many international champions, took a vicarious thrill from their underground urgency. “I have to admit, guiltily, to enjoying this feeling of fear,” he wrote about attending a clandestine performance in Minsk.
But the company’s strongest following, young people between the ages of 16 and 21, don’t go there for kicks. They fight to attend these shows because freedom of expression is not merely an opportunity cost, but a necessary component of humanity. For this they will pay any price – and make no concessions.