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Short Shorts 5

One useful fact of this new regular feature of shorter commentary to a range of different subjects is that I can return with updates to things previously covered. In the last Short Shorts, I drew attention to a story about an autistic child who’s family were asked to move seats during a performance of Wicked because the boy was creating a disturbance, and referred to a new project called Autism Friendly Films that worked to provide special screenings of films that were tailored to the needs of filmgoers with autism, in which the sound will be softer, the lights will be left up at a low level and audience members will be allowed to make noise and sit where they feel comfortable.

It led to an excellent reply on the blog itself from Kirsty Hoyle, access manager at the Unicorn children’s theatre in Southwark, that the Unicorn “already provides operates an autism friendly environment with specialist performances”. Amongst the features offered, “These performances have unreserved seating so that you can have the seat of your choice. The sound will be at a lower volume and the lights will be dimmed rather than a completely dark auditorium. We also send out a social story which has pictures and notes about the show so parents and guardians can prepare their children for the visit. During the show there is an open door policy and the audience is welcome to take breaks and visit our ‘chill-out’ room. We also encourage nervous or first time visitors to come and have a look around the set before the show.”

And this week it was reported that a commercial show on Broadway is also seizing the initiative: The Lion King is to become the first show in Broadway history to offer a performance specially tailored to the needs of those on the autism spectrum, on October 2. The new programme being piloted, called Autism Theatre Initiative, is being presented under the auspices of Broadway’s Theatre Development Fund (TDF), a performing arts service organization whose mission includes making theatre accessible for all audiences, which has hitherto been best known for running the Times Square TKTS booth and offering other discount schemes, to make theatre more accessible on the price front, at least.

The aim of the special autism-friendly performance is, according to TDF’s executive director Victoria Bailey is “to the fill the theatre and be assured that everyone involved with the production—from the cast, production crew and theatre staff—is delighted to have the audience there.  No judgments—just united support in making the theatre experience as enjoyable as possible for its audience.” It will do this by creating what they call “a friendly, supportive environment”, including making slight adjustments to the production will include reduction of any jarring sounds or strobe lights focused into the audience.  In the theatre lobby area there will be designated quiet areas, staffed with autism experts, if anyone needs to leave their seats during the performance.

This is a great idea since it recognises that those on the autism spectrum may indeed need special provision. Theatre should be available to everyone, but involuntary disruptions that are caused by those who are on the spectrum can be extremely disruptive to those around them, not to mention the cast of the show. At least by providing special performances everyone is prepared, and the potential for embarrassment is removed.

I’ve regularly highlighted the rising cost of theatre tickets on this blog, which has been outstripping inflation (and, it seems, costs too); I quoted producer Sonia Friedman here telling the New York Times that the costs of producing a show on Broadway are five times higher than they are in London - yet West End ticket prices aren’t five times cheaper. One producer who has worked on both sides of the pond replied on the blog itself to point out the difference between average prices paid: “The average gross ticket price at a West End Theatre is around £42. Minus VAT. So that’s really only £37 or $60. The average ticket price on Broadway (tickets are not taxed) is $115. So almost double the average West End price. This is due to the fact that Broadway has virtually ONLY top priced tickets.”

All good and (not so) well; but even that economic comparison still doesn’t stack up. If the average ticket price actually paid here (rather than demanded) is almost half that of the Broadway one, who’s pocketing the difference here when production costs are five times cheaper?

Then there are the attendant costs of going on a night out which includes transport and, as I highlighted in the last Short Shorts, will see parking charges being introduced for street parking up to midnight in those streets under the jurisdiction of Westminster Council from December. (There’s no news yet if Camden intend to follow suit; if they don’t, it will be interesting to see pressure on parking spaces increasing north of Oxford Street and east of Tottenham Court Road when theatregoers scramble to park there instead).

Now this week came news that railway fares are to go up by what Labour has called an “eye-watering” average of 8%, at a time when the retail price index for inflation is currently 5%, but the government has changed the annual price rise formula for the railways from RPI +1% to RPI +3%.

And eating out before the show is getting more and more expensive, too. According to the latest Harden’s Restaurant report published this week, “The average cost of dining at a London restaurant has shot up by more than 11 per cent to break the £90-for-two barrier for the first time.” The bill for a three-course dinner with wine, coffee and service is now £90.02, which is 11.1 per cent higher than last year, and is “easily the biggest annual rise in the 21-year history of the survey, which analysed prices at 1,800 destinations across the capital.’ Harden’s co-editor Richard Harden comments to the Evening Standard, “In the 21 years we have followed the restaurant scene we’ve never seen annual inflation anywhere near 10 per cent. This year, however has seen a ‘perfect storm’ - food prices trending sharply upwards worldwide, plus the one-off effect of the January VAT increases.”

Customers quoted in the Evening Standard story on it say they’re cutting back on what they order as a result: one couple eating at a tapas bar say they bought eight dishes, “and could have eaten two or three more dishes but we didn’t order them because it as a bit pricey.” Theatre customers may start saying the same thing: they’ll either start selecting cheaper seats, or seeing fewer performances overall. After the boom, the theatre world could be heading for bust thanks to greed.

Finally on the restaurant front, critics can clearly incite violence. AA Gill, who has previously publicly revelled in his own desire to inflict violence by shooting a baboon dead, has this week been cited in the legal case of a chef and restaurant owner who assaulted a kitchen worker after Gill had eaten there, and had said his meal was disgusting. According to the chef, quoted in The Independent this week, “I was at the end of my tether and was so upset, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

But as fellow restaurant critic Jay Rayner of The Observer commented in a piece in The Guardian, “Asking a restaurant critic what they thought of their meal is never a good idea, not least because they will eventually tell you anyway.” (And Gill, in fact, went on to award a four out of five star review of the restaurant concerned.) But as Rayner goes on to comment, “It is, to be honest, a question most of us in the restaurant-reviewing game dread. Apart from Marina O’Loughlin of London’s Metro, who guards her identity more keenly than a lioness her cubs, none of us who eats for a living is really anonymous. Even if you don’t appear on television, the restaurant world has mug shots of you within months of your taking up the job. So the words, ‘How was your meal?’ are rarely innocent.”

The best answer, he says, is to say ‘fine’. “In my experience the word ‘fine’ covers a multitude of sins. Everything is always fine. It is neutral enough that if the subsequent review is a stinker the restaurant can’t complain I gave them false hope, while also being civil enough to grease proceedings. People eating with me are also instructed to use the ‘F’ word, because what my companions think of the food is irrelevant. I’m not interested in their opinions; I only want them there so I can order more stuff.”


Does Broadway require more producers to put more money into the show? Many shows seem to close at a loss to producers, so perhaps the extra production costs are not going *in* someone's pocket in London, but coming *out* of someone's pocket in New York?

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