Manchester Theatres – Competition or Collaboration?

Should Manchester’s theatres compete or collaborate?  At the moment Manchester’s theatre scene is vibrant, with a depth of performance that offers the ordinary theatregoer much choice each night, from musicals and classic theatre to cutting edge multidisciplinary performance and fringe.  When the Factory opens in 2020 we will hopefully have a large world class venue.  I have no doubt that we have the performances to fill the venues but do we have the audiences?

In his excellent 2016 book ‘The Language of Cities’, Deyan Sudjic argues that ‘In reality, it is not the cities that simply build museums in the hope that something will turn up that are the successes.  The cities that succeed are the ones that are rooted in the kind of cultural climate that is creative enough to fill the museums as well as build them.’  Substitute theatre for museum and there’s the nub of Manchester’s problems.

In the 2015 census, 47% of Manchester’s residents were between the ages of 20 and 44.  But how many of them regularly go to the theatre?  Anecdotally (and if anyone can prove/disprove this I’ll amend it) 50% to 70% of the audience at large theatres see only one show a year.  The vibrant fringe scene features a high proportion of actors in the audience.  ‘Classic’ theatre has always appealed predominantly to an older generation.  Younger audiences flock to musical theatre, and specific high profile performances, especially within MIF.  I recently attended Secret Cinema in London which is to all effects an immersive theatre performance, and the audience is one that any theatre would want.  Why can’t theatres attract the young, affluent, culturally engaged audiences that will provide longevity and depth for Manchester’s theatre scene?

Most larger Manchester theatres have upgraded their websites.  All push out mountains of seasonal programmes and glossy flyers.  But are these techniques attracting significant new audiences?  Or are the theatres all competing for the same, existing, audience?  When the Factory is built, how can we ensure that its audiences are new to theatre, as opposed to stealing from existing audiences.  How does Manchester’s theatre audience (excluding musicals) grow in total?

What made me see performances that I would have otherwise missed?  Well, I booked 11 shows last year solely on the basis of Lyn Gardner’s blog, shows I would not have otherwise seen, and on days I would not normally have gone to the theatre.  Almost every other show I saw was a choice.  If not one theatre then another, driven by PR and marketing activity.  One theatre’s marketing only steals from another.  The impartial voice is as powerful as word of mouth.

Growing new audiences is hard and few do it well.  In Manchester I am struck by how well Manchester Camerata do this.  From bringing classical music into the theatre through a sensory experience to staging 90s classics that appeal to a new (for them) audience, to bringing their music to target audiences in bars like Common,  this is an innovative organisation.

It is hard for individual theatres to reach out to sizeable new audiences.  Growth in the overall number of people who regularly go to the theatre benefits everyone.  What Manchester needs is collaboration between all theatres to grow the total theatre audience.  And this needs to happen before Factory opens, otherwise one shiny new building will achieve no more than to replace other less shiny buildings.

photo: Hamburg’s shiniest new building

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

One Response to “Manchester Theatres – Competition or Collaboration?”

  1. Kevin Bourke says:

    A really interesting piece. I could say that the Manchester Theatre Awards are, to some extent, a sign of theatres collaborating but are we in an appropriate position to be more pro-active when it comes to the sort of questions you raise? Now, when you have critical commentary eviscerated in the media, who can even begin to take up these broader issues?

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