The ADCLouis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

It’s well known that the ADC deals in amateur theatre – it’s in the name – so no one expects it to make a huge profit. However, we also never expected it to make the massive deficits which the recently published 2022/23 ADC General Report suggests. Staging at least four plays a week, the notoriety of the theatre makes it shocking – and honestly a little concerning – that they’re ending this year with a shortfall of £52,000.

Since Cambridge University effectively owns the ADC theatre, they are (fortunately) responsible for resolving this deficit. According to the report, this involves providing a limited chest fund of £21k, plus a grant of £173k, all totalling to a massive £194k pumped into the theatre just to keep it afloat. While it’s great the university invests so much in the arts for students, is it sustainable to keep this up? Looking at past years’ reports, the answer appears to be no. Worryingly, this issue is becoming a pattern, with the report for 2021/22 also revealing a deficit of £42,000. With the ADC evidently financially dependent on the university for the foreseeable future, maybe it’s time to start thinking about why student theatre is making such a loss, and what needs to change.

“It’s time to start thinking about why student theatre is making such a loss”

According to the report, ticket sales for the ADC theatre and Playroom are falling under 90% of the overall target. Only 51% of seats across all shows were sold – down 4% from last year. Even the bar didn’t meet the expected sales, down 6%. Is Cambridge losing interest? Potentially, although more answers seem to lie in the pandemic. We all remember the battering the arts industry took during Covid. From ‘Save the Theatre’ initiatives to online streaming, there were countless desperate efforts to keep the business afloat. Just as the university has stepped in to salvage the ADC theatre, 2020 saw the government muster a £1.57 billion rescue plan for the nation’s stages.

However, for the majority of people, Covid no longer poses a risk. We are no longer in lockdown, standing two metres apart, or told to wear masks. Nevertheless, theatre-going seems to be the exception when it comes to returning to pre-pandemic ways. Beyond the ADC theatre, venues everywhere are struggling to usher in the same business that they once enjoyed. The National Theatre, despite their income rising by 40% last year, are still miles off where they were before 2020; from a yearly income pre-Covid averaging at over £100 million, their current turnover now fails to rise above £80 million.

" We all remember the battering the arts industry took during Covid”

I don’t think such immense losses in theatre can be explained by the practical fears Covid induced; while a couple of years ago people were genuinely anxious to sit down among a tightly packed audience, it’s safe to say the fears of close contact are in the past. Can this mean that general interest in theatre has decreased? According to the ADC, it’s the opposite – there were 1100 students participating in ADC shows last year, 600 of whom were involved for the first time. People want to put on a show, and I believe there’s a general consensus that theatre is an important part of society and culture.

This is certainly revealed in the rise in optional donations; 6% of tickets this year included an average £5 donation, highlighting a strong sense of sympathy towards a struggling student theatre. But this also shows that, post-Covid, theatre has become a charity. Despite desperate desires to keep it afloat, I can’t see anything improving in the coming years if this continues. For the ADC theatre, at least, a revival to the sales of the past seems highly unlikely unless something is done.

“Post-Covid, theatre has become a charity”

So if not the fear of catching Covid, what is driving profits into the ground at the ADC – and the theatre industry as a whole? I’d argue that the answer lies in the cultural revolution that Covid brought. How people consume entertainment has dramatically, potentially irreversibly, been altered. The convenience and infinite variety of what is accessible online, from the comfort of our own homes, counteracts physical theatre’s attractions. Not only is it more expensive, but it’s more of a hassle.

Nevertheless, problems may also lie in over-idealising pre-Covid times. Yes, the ADC should be making more of a profit - but it’s unlikely this can be achieved by desperately scrambling back to where we were. We need to look forward, and think about the current setting of Cambridge stages. Things are constantly changing, and theatre has a bad habit of always trying to stand still. The ADC Theatre is a fundamental part of Cambridge and has been for a long time, but we can’t force it into the same box it used to be in and expect success.


Mountain View

Blink and you'll miss it

Take the triumph of Macbeth Online, solely performed over Zoom; innovative plays like these use the changes within culture and technology to their advantage – an exciting prospect that more could consider. Alongside this, more sociable timings have been a means for some theatres to adapt to a post-Covid world, seeing success in The National Theatre, who introduced earlier showings to suit its audiences’ preferences after conducting a survey of theatre-goers. Mimicking this process by asking the students and public what would really get them back into the theatre could be a way for the ADC to survive – not by struggling against the tide, but embracing a new wave of what audiences want. Let’s welcome new ideas, new structures, and be grateful for the opportunities the ADC theatre gives us.