Where does the restoration levy go?
One of the great mysteries of the theatrical universe is just how the restoration levy is spent that most theatre chains, both in the West End and on Broadway, now routinely charge. There’s no transparency at all, despite the fact that theatregoers are forced to cough up this small but ultimately significant sum on top of their ticket price, and that’s before they’ve paid other add-ons like booking fees (per ticket) and transaction and delivery charges. (Surely the most puzzling delivery charge is the one you’re charged by the providers of the ticketing services for Broadway theatres for selecting the ‘print your own tickets’ at home option; you’re using your own printer ink to do so, yet somehow the fact that they send you an e-mail to print out the ticket incurs a $2.75 fee).
Just this week ATG — Britain’s largest theatrical owner, with 39 theatres in its control either as owners and/or managers — announced that by the end of 2013 it will have spent some £15m in capital projects across its venues.
So finally we see sight of where some of the restoration levy is going. Of course, ATG doesn’t fill every single one of its 50,000 or so seats at every performance, but if it did, they would be collecting some £400,000 a week just on the restoration levy. At capacity, it would take the chain 125 weeks to earn the £15m it is now spending.
Announcing the new spend on capital projects, an ATG spokesman told The Stage that “around half the £15 million had been funded via the levy, with ATG match-funding the remainder.” If, however, that means that ATG have only collect £7.5m from the levy across the three years in this period, does this mean that ATG venues are operating at less than 50% capacity overall?
Continuing the theme of add-on charges levied to customers, last week The Stage revealed that comedian Sarah Millican will avoid all venues operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group on her next tour, because she does not agree with ATG’s booking fee policy. According to Alistair Smith’s story, “between £1.90 and £4.90 is added to the face value of each ticket bought online or by telephone, as well as a transaction fee ranging from £2.85 to £4, depending on the venue.”
In a blog on her own website, Millican explained:
Some of you will notice that I’m not playing some of the venues I played on my last tour, those venues are owned and run by The Ambassador Theatre Group. In my opinion I don’t agree with the extra charges ATG put on top of the face value ticket price to you the customer and a number of other restrictions they have in place so that’s why I’ve avoided their venues this time round. We’ve booked alternative theatres though across the country so you will still be able to find somewhere close to you to come and see the show.”
Of course, the consumer has no choice: they have to go where the show is playing. But this protest, by the talent itself, could be far more effective: if enough artists take this kind of action and theatres found themselves empty as a result, the booking fees would have to be re-thought.
Helen Enright, chief financial officer and commercial director for ATG, told The Stage that Millican’s action was “concerning” because ATG did not want any artists or producers avoiding ATG venues, and added:
The customer is our number one priority and it’s our objective to make any charges fair and as transparent as possible to the customer. That said, we do take any adverse comments - whether from customer, producer or artist - very seriously. And we are constantly reviewing our charges. We are always reviewing our charges to make sure they are fair and we are in the process of revisiting all of that. We will be in a position to make an announcement, hopefully within the next one or two months, to address those concerns.
Escalating ticket prices
I’m always banging on about escalating ticket prices, even before the add-ons described above. Of course theatre doesn’t come cheap — especially actors and the personnel who make it want to get paid (and there’s no subsidy and/or sponsorship available to help towards meeting those costs).
But it still worries me when the business model for the brand-new new St James Theatre that opened this week means that tickets are more expensive than the Donmar Warehouse or Almeida. Tickets for the opening show Bully Boy, a two-hander play by Sandi Toskvig that’s been imported from Southampton and Northampton, reach a top price of £40; tickets for the next one, Daddy Long Legs, reach £55. You can go to Billy Elliot or Wicked just down the road for less.
Letter of the week
In a letter to The Guardian last week, Guy Chapman, managing director of West End PR and marketing company Target Live commented:
I applaud the fact that Josie Rourke at Donmar Warehouse is championing women actors and directors in her new season. But I do feel that, however “worthy” this is, the Donmar and all subsidised companies should be taking up the challenge set by the Paralympics and Jenny Sealey’s opening ceremony to put disabled actors and artists at the forefront of their policies - audiences are primed and ready for this important sea change.
As a matter of interest, though, how primed are West End PR and marketing companies for employing disabled staff?
Quotes of the week
- Susannah Clapp reviewing Jonathan Pryce’s King Lear at the Almeida in last Sunday’s Observer:
“There are actors you grow up with: actors who point you towards milestones in your own life and who make you recognise theatrical milestones. Jonathan Pryce is one of those actors for me. In 1980 I was galvanised by him as a Hamlet possessed by his dead father; now I am gripped by him as a father dispossessing his daughters. Richard Eyre’s revolutionary Hamlet(with Harriet Walter as Ophelia) had Pryce ventriloquising the murdered king, rasping paternal admonitions from his own throat. Then he was skinny and convulsed. In Michael Attenborough’s more wary production of King Lear he is more rolling, and his voice is deeper, with a catch that suggests both the gulp of emotion and an incipient stroke.”
- Jeremy Kingston reviewing Simon Callow’s one-man Dickens show The Mystery of Charles Dickens in The Times on September 19:
“A great mystery in the art of acting is how someone preparing for a one-person show, as Simon Callow will have prepared for this triumphant celebration of Dickens, manages to memorise two hours of text. A role in a play is a different matter: seldom as long and interrupted by the other actors. But this immense, intense procession of talk that even when, as here, it traces the chronology of a life and thereby obtains a sort of structure, how does the human brain learn and retain it? However Callow’s brain manages to do this marvel the result is a fascinating evening in the theatre.”