Number 3 – Value
A very interesting debate has emerged over the last week or so. Since Tarek Iskander has taken over as Artistic Director at Battersea Arts Centre [BAC], he has been a vocal advocate for change in the theatre industry. Whether you agree with him or not, I hope you can see that this kind of shake-up and challenge to the ‘way we do things’ is necessary and important.
One of the debates that has arisen from this, surrounds ticket prices or (more fundamentally) whether it should cost anything at all to engage with a piece of art. Tarek has made a bold statement in this regard, by announcing that tickets for BAC shows will be sold on a ‘pay what you decide’ basis from 2021.
Tarek’s argument is that this makes art more accessible, that it enhances its value because it can reach more people. Others have argued that it devalues the art, makes it literally poorer, will increase the likelihood of audience members booking but not attending, and that increasing access is about more than the cost of a ticket.
For my part, I think this is a hugely welcome and important debate to be having, whichever side of the debate you fall on.
Fundamentally, it forces us to question the way in which we (both individually and as a society) ascribe value. If something is free does that mean it has less value than something that costs money? Is a free show at BAC less valuable than an £85 show in the West End?
Surely, it depends on the quality of the experience, more than the price-tag?
I think we have a worrying tendency in our culture to equate value with money. How valuable something is, in reality, often bears little resemblance to how much it costs or how much it is worth monetarily. A letter from a loved one has no monetary value, but we might be more willing to part with our TV than that letter. A hug from a friend or relative doesn’t cost anything but we are more aware of its value now than ever before! In fact, I would argue that most things that we really, genuinely value in our lives have little to no monetary worth – love, laughter, companionship, nature. [Though, I also acknowledge there are lots of important things that do have monetary value – homes, gas, electricity, running water, food.]
Equally, our healthcare service is free to access. An appointment with our GP is free on the NHS but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t value the work that the GP does and the years of training they undertook. Would be value our GP appointment more if we paid for it? Or do we value it more for the very reason that we don’t have to pay for it?
I would also argue that more money does not always result in a better product. In the case of theatre, I have seen many big-budget productions that have been artistically far inferior to small-budget fringe productions.
Ultimately, theatre (and art more broadly) is not about money. No-one goes into a career in theatre because they want to make money (or, if they do, they are by far and away the minority). Equally, no-one goes to the theatre because it cost them money to go. Fundamentally, people make theatre because they want to share something with the world – whether that’s an experience, a story, an emotion, a perspective, an idea – and people go to theatre because they want to be enlightened, entertained, challenged, moved, amazed, etc. etc. Money is needed purely and simply to pay for the cost of making the art and the artists’ time in making it.
As soon as arguments around theatre become about money, theatre loses. The theatre industry regularly reinforces the argument that it makes a valuable contribution to the UK economy. Yes, absolutely it does, but (and I’m no expert on this) I’m pretty sure banks, insurance companies, tech, food and retail all make far bigger contributions. Theatre’s value is not in the money it brings into the country. Theatre’s value is in the impact it has on peoples’ lives – on their creative wellbeing, on their emotional intelligence, on their ability to empathise, on their ability to feel part of a common experience. And, as far as I’m concerned, these things are all far more valuable than money.
So, should theatre tickets be free? I don’t know. They certainly shouldn’t be £85, and I can’t see how making theatre free can do anything other than make it more accessible. Whether it works or not, and whether you agree or not, I think we need to recognise the importance of the gesture. By making theatre free to access, it forces us to focus on the other ways in which we can ascribe something value. It pushes the argument for theatre aware from money and towards the more holistic, human value it has. This, for me, can only be a good thing.