But let’s be honest, no one who asks me that question is after a philosophical lecture on the power of theatre. The question they’re actually asking is ‘how do you afford to go to the theatre so often?’ It’s a fair question, it’s not the cheapest of hobbies. And if you only ever read the frequent articles about top price premium tickets in the big West End shows I can totally get why you would think that going more often than one or twice a year is the preserve of Russian oligarchs and the Queen.
I don’t claim to be an expert in theatrical bargain hunting, but I do go a fair bit and have yet to go bankrupt. Below are my top ten tips should you wish to do likewise.
Ten tips, and a dose of realness too. Because of course the main reason I can afford to go to the theatre so often is because, relatively speaking, I’m in an enormously privileged position. Don’t punch me, I’m not saying I’m rich or anything and this is not a god awful humblebrag of any kind. It’s just a fact that life has, to date, dealt me the sort of hand which allows me to splash money on theatre tickets. I have a job that pays reasonably and lets me leave on time; I live close enough to London to be able to get there in less than an hour and for less than £15 but far enough away that I’ve managed to buy my own place and so avoid the frankly obscene South East England rental market; I don’t drive or smoke or drink much in the week; I don’t have any dependents to worry about; I’m the sort of white, middle class, able bodied, cis gender person that theatre is still made for and marketed to to a depressing extent; I have, in short, a level of disposable income and fortuitousness of circumstance which I fully appreciate I am very lucky to have. But, y’know, I love a bargain as much as the next person so on we go.
1. Know your limits
Just don’t spend too much. Literally, just don’t do it. Super helpful advice right? To expand, what I mean is know roughly how much you have/want to spend on theatre each month and know roughly what tickets you want to buy each month. From there the maths roughly does itself. It will force you to make some tough decisions sometimes (sorry, The King and I, I just don’t want you enough) but it is the number one thing you can do to stop yourself going massively into your overdraft. I do this religiously, changing my rough amount of spend every month depending on what else is going on in my life and how important everything is relative to everything else. This month I’m reigning the spending in - after a super spenny drop on new season NT tickets last month - because there’s other stuff going on in my life that I value more than theatre (there are a few things). So my ticket buying has been limited to The Jungle (£20) and A Monster Calls (£5 - FIVE POUNDS). I get my theatre fix, but still have money to spend on the rest of life. Win win.
2. Do your research
A related point, but knowing what’s on, what’s coming, what’s about to go on sale and what anything you’re interested in will cost is the backbone of successfully not bankrupting yourself. Join all the mailing lists, follow all the social accounts, have a look at as much prior info about shows you want to see as you can (including, crucially, price bands and seating charts) before payday. A top tip within a top tip here is not to be put off by headlines about top price tickets, because even the most expensive shows will have some ok-priced tickets. You just need to know where to look for them. In many cases it’s honestly just as simple as looking on the theatre’s website itself and seeing what’s behind that scary headline.
3. Discount schemes are your friend
Basically every show these days has some way of getting cheap tickets, even the West End big guys. The biggest and still the best is the NT’s Travelex £15 season, a particular joy because it includes so many tickets and there’s no such thing as a bad seat at the Nash. Loads of places have particular discounts for all you young bastards too (off the top of my head, the Hampstead and the Bridge are particularly good for the under 30s). Loads of West End shows have a cheap lottery in some form or another for certain seats at each performance - I’ve heard particularly good things about the one for Hamilton (whose seats generally, by the way, are nowhere near as expensive as people seem to think).
4. Previews? Also your friend
Previews - shows before the production is officially shown to the press and declared open - are a gift for budgeting. And whilst it’s true that a show can change entirely between first preview and opening night, the fact is most don’t. The quality of the performance is rarely less than utterly polished (early previews sometimes run a bit long) and there’s a certain thrill to seeing a show when the actors are still feeling their way into it. It’s pretty standard now for most new productions to offer a reduction across all their ticket prices; not by a huge amount but by enough to be helpful. Of particular note are The Old Vic’s £10 Previews which are always great. Only available five weeks in advance, half the OV’s huge auditorium is available for £10 including many of the usually top price stalls tickets. Utterly bargainous.
5. Book really early or really late
Cheap day seats (ie seats bought on the day for that day) are increasingly a thing now. Not just the ones you have to physically queue up and pay for in person (honestly, who has time?) but the lotteries I just mentioned are often done that way too. New tech has really made the day seat a more attractive option. Schemes like the Donmar’s Klaxon and NT’s Friday Rush allow you to buy cheap tickets for the following week’s shows if you like a bit more advance planning. If you’re like me though and want stuff booked weeks if not months in advance then booking as soon as you can is a great option too: the earlier you book the more options you’ll have. Booking on the day tickets are released is my bag and has been how I’ve got probably 80% of my best deals (£15 seats for every single Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Michael Grandage West End season show, for example) If you can book in a pre-sale period, more’s the better. Which brings me on to...
6. Membership schemes are worth it
Ok, so this adds another layer of cost but theatre membership schemes are worth considering. Basically, you give them money, they give you early access to ticket sales (and other nice things). I am, somewhat ridiculously, a member of three theatres now: the NT, the Old Vic and the Bridge (who do a young membership package up to age 35 for which I love them dearly). I always use their members’ pre-sale and it’s landed me some seriously good seats across the board. Yes they’re a (small) investment but they do yield a return if you use them right. Plus you get the nice fuzzy feeling of supporting the theatre generally. Can’t justify the cost? All of them can be bought as gifts - one for your Christmas list perhaps? My parents have been buying my OV membership as a Christmas gift for years now.
I’ve generally tried to avoid singling out individual companies, mailing lists etc because in truth I use so many that that would be impossible. But one thing that I am religiously devoted to and use all the time is the TodayTix theatre ticket app. It’s amazing for things like Rush tickets (you tweet about a show to access cheap, last minute tickets), lotteries, pre-sales, flash sales and booking fee discount days. It’s also incredibly easy to use and they don’t sell seats with restricted views so you have a bit of confidence about what you’re buying even when it’s a dirt cheap ticket. It’s such a great app and has delivered for me so many times. I love it (and no, this is is no way a sponsored post, just to be clear).
8. Places other than London exist
If you can get out of London, you’ll find your money goes so much further. Think about regional theatres (that more Londoners don’t come out to Chichester in my neck of the woods is baffling to me), think about touring productions, think about theatres outside zones 1-4. By way of example, I saw a production of This House in the West End on which I happily splashed out (see below) £65 for a third row stalls seat. A marginally better third row stalls seat for the subsequent tour of the same This House at the Yvonne Arnauld theatre in Guildford came to £34.50. Admittedly the West End version was better cast, but still. A £30 difference is not to be sniffed at. And I’m not sure I’ve ever spent more than £20 on a ticket at Chichester, including good front stalls seats for all of their musicals (I have Me and My Girl coming up next month, front row stalls seats at £10 each). This isn’t an option for everyone, or for every production, but it’s worth considering when you can.
9. Have no friends
Look, getting a cheap ticket is easier than getting four cheap tickets. Or, if you’re less anti-social than me, getting four separate cheap tickets and meeting up in the bar at the interval is easier than getting four cheap tickets together and sitting in the dark not talking to each other until you go to the bar in the interval. Whichever, they both work. If you’re happy to not sit with your friends then The Bush’s excellent Count Me In scheme is for you: you give them £10 per (guaranteed) seat, they allocate them wherever there are gaps to be filled, valid on all performances in their no-bad-seats main house. I wish more places did this sort of thing.
10. Splash out sometimes
There is a section of theatre Twitter that will consider this heresy, but if you’re really excited about a production for whatever reason and want to splash out on a really good seat then fucking do it. As long as you can ultimately afford it, it’s honestly the best to go and sit with the rich kids sometimes. Don’t feel guilty about it, don’t feel the need to explain or justify it, just enjoy it. I do this a few times a year. Recent examples, all of which were amazing experiences, include Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (my birthday present to myself), This House (because James Graham), The Hairy Ape (because Bertie Carvel) and Ink (because James Graham AND Bertie Carvel and sweet fuck I was so happy). I don’t normally pay more than £30 at most for a single ticket, but if it’s something I really want to see up close then I’m happy to. All of the above were £45 - £65 and I regret absolutely nothing about spending that money.