Cultivating Future Audiences or Why I’m Becoming a Member of Barbican Centre

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Barbican Centre

In February 2009 the Arts Council England launched A Night Less Ordinary, a scheme designed to get young people engaged with theatre through the allocation of 618,000 free tickets. The scheme ran until 2011 before being curtailed due to Governmental cuts. At the time I was deeply disappointed by this decision, for me it was the perfect opportunity to get many of my peers involved in something I felt passionately about with little ask.

I was not naive though, the scheme had its faults but I also knew it wasn’t just about cost that stopped young people attending theatre as I addressed at an Audiences London event. It’s the marketing, the programming and the barriers of the physical theatre itself that prevents attendance, but that’s a whole other post for another day.

Some arts organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and the Barbican Centre evolved A Night Less Ordinary into their own schemes; The RSC Key, NT Entry Pass and Barbican FreeB all emerged and naturally a valued member I became. I’ve never used the RSC’s scheme, they’re a little too far for me to get to, but Entry Pass and FreeB became a lifesaver in getting to see work that I would otherwise be unable to afford.

We’ve known for many years that there is an importance for arts organisations to cultivate future audiences. A look at the audiences of classical music or opera will show you the gap of younger more youthful audiences compared to the latter end of the spectrum. Cultivation, whilst a dry and frustrating word when applied to future audiences is important to the arts, otherwise who are the future audiences to fill the auditoriums across the country? Those that too often arts organisations are failing to engage? Ticket schemes such as FreeB and Entry Pass allow for accessibility, if and when you become in the know (like I said earlier, schemes like this always have failure points).

Through the Barbican FreeB scheme I saw in the excess of 30 shows, most of these in the main-house and most, if not all, from large European or World renown directors and companies. I was first introduced to the Schaubüne, to Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, James Thiérrée, Pina Bausch, NeedCompany, Heiner Gobbels… the list goes on. The level of exposure has continued to shape and define my understanding and appreciation for the visual and often unique staging that the Barbican allows. They are, and continue to be, one of the few theatres that has the resources to bring international work to London. Each time a new season rolls around I struggle to contain my excitement, which is why I’ve become a Barbican Centre member.

Having hit the age of 26 ticket schemes are no longer accessible to me and having stepped away from the critical reflection of work (I’ve hung up my reviewers hat for now) I’m appreciating the process of ticket buying and attending as an ordinary, but enthusiastic, audience member. Becoming a Barbican member was a simple choice to make. For £40 (direct debit) I could get 20% off tickets for me and a guest to theatre and music shows, free entry to the gallery, discount on food and drinks and the chance to attend members only events. The most appealing benefit is the discount on tickets. I’ve just bought tickets for nearly every show until June 2015 and that 20% discount has saved my bank account from completely emptying, although I was still setback by over £200 *gulp*.

What I do know is I would never have become a member if it wasn’t for the FreeB scheme. I must be one of the first generation of members to be graduating from it now and moving towards a paid membership. It’ll be interesting for the Barbican to see how many of their FreeB members choose to stay in another membership, although they are missing a trick by not getting in touch to offer it. After expiring from Entry Pass I had a letter inviting me to be a Young Patron of the National Theatre. Being approached as a somewhat young person to be a patron is quite lovely. It makes you feel wanted, and it makes you see the next step for engaging further with an arts organisation. I just felt like it wasn’t for me at the time.

When the Arts Council England launched their A Night Less Ordinary scheme their aim was to engage the future audiences of theatre. Yes I’m on the upper range for engagement (I work, and thrive off theatre) but I’ve still been cultivated to become a further engager. If I had the money (oh if I had the money!) I can easily see myself being a donor or, excuse the somewhat Tory speak, a philanthropist for the arts. Schemes such as FreeB and Entry Pass has helped to show me that attending theatre can be more than just a night of entertainment; it can be the first step to being part of a community of givers for the arts.

Now, are any arts organisations going to show that there has been a trend in growing younger audience members into paying members? I hope so, although we have to remember that cultivation comes in many forms, but is it working? It did for me.

Photo by Max Sang and obtained through a Creative Commons licence.