James Corden in 'One Man, Two Guvnors'Twitter/TimeOutTheatre

In an unexpected turn of events, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about something positive: theatre is more accessible than ever before. You may have noticed that in the absence of anything better to do, shut-down theatres across the UK have started streaming past productions for free online. The most prominent example is the National Theatre, which has begun streaming one past production per week online via YouTube, to the joy of millions of new theatre fans. It is a ray of hope for the theatre industry in otherwise incredibly uncertain times for those whose livelihoods revolve around making theatre. The only question is: why has it taken a deadly virus to encourage theatres to take this step?

Whether we like to admit or not, going to the theatre remains perceived as the preserve of the metropolitan middle classes. This is in part due to ticket prices. Ticket prices for West End shows have hit headlines for often being over £100; meanwhile, as of 2018, the average theatre ticket costs £27.10. This perhaps does not sound like an exorbitant amount, but in contrast to the average cinema ticket price in 2019 of £7.11, it is already apparent why a night at the theatre is still perceived as a predominantly middle class pastime. The fact is that the majority of us cannot afford to attend the theatre more than once in a blue moon. Even if we did want to, the lack of theatres beyond major towns and cities makes it even more unlikely that those living rurally may easily access theatres, which is the other problem which restricts theatre’s target audiences to those inhabiting towns and cities.

Like many others from similar backgrounds to myself, I thought theatre was pretentious

On the surface, this problem may not seem particularly pressing. Theatre is there for those who want it, you might argue. This is true, to an extent- but the fact is, as long as an insufficient number of working class people watch theatre, the less likely they are to be inspired to enter the industry. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, where a lack of representation engenders underrepresentation, discouraging more young, working class people from taking an interest in theatre.

I grew up in a small working class town, in a family with not that much interest in going to the theatre (especially not straight theatre). Like many others from similar backgrounds to myself, I thought theatre was pretentious- cinema’s more refined (and much more boring) counterpart. I was only fortunate that my secondary school drama teachers were avid theatregoers, passionate about taking their pupils to the theatre in Manchester, often using local authority arts funding money to subsidise our tickets. I only go to experience theatre’s magic thanks to these trips, and I realised that it wasn’t just about Shakespeare and Received Pronunciation- it could be something else entirely.

The reality is, however, that truly dedicated drama teachers are few and far between. A double whammy of underfunded arts education in British state schools and a wave of privately educated actors in the public eye are discouraging many working class children from considering careers in the creative arts- but why would streaming theatre for free online help this?

Initiatives such as NTLive are already acknowledging the dearth of theatres beyond major towns and cities by streaming their latest productions to local cinemas- yet ticket prices remain the same as if you were seeing the production live at the National, and therefore, prohibitively expensive for some.


Mountain View

Cambridge theatre has a diversity problem

Meanwhile, theatre companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Jamie Lloyd Company have begun to offer discounted or free tickets to particular demographics- but remain heavily London or city-centric. These initiatives are helpful, and are proof of the efforts being made by the industry to diversify and to instil a passion for theatre in people from a variety of backgrounds. However, it is only through streaming productions for free online that theatres would truly open their doors to everyone, with neither ticket prices nor proximities to a theatre serving as hindrances for those interested in watching theatre.

As long as an insufficient number of working class people watch theatre, the less likely they are to be inspired to enter the industry

Perhaps it is a naïve hope that the joy which so many people have discovered when watching a National Theatre production via YouTube, for example, will help to continue the struggle to dismantle the attitudes prevalent among so many working class people that theatre is a space from which they are excluded. Perhaps, after this is all over, these same people will not suddenly decide they want to get involved in making theatre after being inspired by James Corden’s performance in One Man Two Guvnors. After all, being able to watch productions is only part of the long road to widening access to the theatre industry; arts education also plays an incredibly significant role, and it remains stubbornly undervalued and underfunded. Nevertheless, what streaming has achieved in such a short time is that it has appealed to much wider audience than your typical National Theatre Thursday evening crowd, and this will be its unique legacy.

If the theatre industry wishes to thrive, in the same way which had been doing pre-pandemic when theatres are eventually allowed to re-open, it must modernise by streaming productions for free (or a small fee) online. This may sound a touch liberal for some, but we cannot ignore the wave of interest which streaming has already generated in just five weeks: it has almost effortlessly united millions of people who had never watched much theatre before (including my parents!) to tune in to YouTube on Thursday evenings to watch a National Theatre production. It has shown that truly opening up theatres to anyone is possible. Hopefully, it has also shown people who would usually perceive theatre as something too detached from their lives, that it is anything but. Theatre is only truly good if it authentically reflects all people which it seeks to portray. Streaming productions for free in the future would be truly widening access, and would serve as a reminder why theatre has the power to be special, for anyone.