Broadway and other U.S.-based theatres will surely be watching the results of a new program launched by the British government’s Culture Ministry where people under 26 years old will be given free theatre tickets. The move was initiated last week in partnership with 95 theatres in the UK, and it works like this: beginning in February 2009, free tickets will be offered one day a week. The tickets will be available to anyone under 26 on a first-come, first-served basis, and premium seats, not just the hard-to-sell ones will be doled out.

Why offer them? Conspicuous by their absence in UK theatres is a whole demographic: young people between the ages of 18 and 26. According to a report by the BBC, only 30 percent of 16–26 year-olds attended the theatre last year. That’s about seven percent lower than those in the 26 and over group. It’s true of U.S. audiences as well, only worse: although not a direct comparison, according to the Broadway League’s 2006-07 figures, just 10.5 percent of theatergoers to Broadway shows were between the ages of 18 and 24. Breaking it down, this group represented about 11 percent of the audiences at musicals and a dismal five percent at plays. Extrapolate this to include the entire country, and those in the business of ticket sales can see this huge, under-represented market.

In a quick scan of the Internet, two theatres in the U.S. have similar programs offering free tickets for those in the same age group: the Free Theatre on H Street program in Washington DC, and the San Francisco Theatre Bay Area organization.

What’s the problem? Both here and in the UK there are lots of entertainment choices to attract this crowd: plenty of bars, nightclubs, movie theatres, sports events, video games, the Internet and television, to name a few. The challenge for theatres, both for-profit and non-profit, lies in finding ways to make the “high-culture” perception of live theatre a whole lot more attractive—and affordable. The UK program will introduce theatre to many more of this age group with free tickets. It should dispel the notion that it is always elitist, expensive entertainment and leave them wanting more even at full price. Stage productions on Broadway suffer from the same perception of price and value: a NASCAR race can be a far more expensive entertainment event than an evening on Broadway.

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The artistic director at the Young Vic, according to the BBC, said “The most important thing to do is to put on a good show,” and added, “The main reason that people don’t come to the theatre is because the shows are boring,” although he is not suggesting doing away with Shakespeare.

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