Is earlier better for theater start times?

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, April 22, 2024

Is earlier better for theater start times?
The National Theatre in London, on Dec. 14, 2022. In an effort to entice audiences back after the pandemic, Britain’s National Theater is testing a 6:30 p.m. curtain. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- At 6:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, most London theatergoers were still busy at work, or eating a preshow dinner, or maybe waiting at home for a babysitter.

Except at the National Theater.

There, about 450 theater fans were already in their seats, where the curtain had just gone up on “Till the Stars Come Down,” a dark comedy about a wedding that goes disastrously wrong. That night was the first performance in a six-month trial to see if starting some shows at 6:30 p.m. instead of 7:30 can lure back theatergoers who, since the coronavirus pandemic began, don’t want to stay out late in London anymore.

The early performances were “marginally outselling” other midweek shows, said Alex Bayley, the National Theater’s head of marketing. The theater will wait to see the trial results before making the early starts a permanent fixture.

In interviews in the bustling foyer before the show, 20 attendees said that they thought the early start was a good idea. Ruth Hendle, 65, an accountant, said that it meant she wouldn’t have to run out at the end to catch the last train home. “I’m too old to be doing that anymore,” she said. Mary Castleden, 68, said that an early finish would mean an easier drive home.

The only complaints concerned the lack of time to have dinner first. “I hope they’re not eating food in this play,” said Karim Khan, 29, “otherwise I might get hungry.” (Khan did not get his wish: Soon after the play began, the ensemble cast performed a scene in which they snacked from an overflowing buffet.)

In New York, there has been some movement on curtain times, too. Jason Laks, the Broadway League’s general counsel, said that about 10 years ago, an 8 p.m. theater start was sacrosanct. Now, there was “a trend to a 7 p.m. curtain,” he said, although he noted that that shift began before the pandemic.

One of the Broadway shows to change hours is “Hadestown.” Mara Isaacs, that musical’s lead producer, said in an email that last year she moved the show’s Friday curtain forward an hour to 7 p.m., after learning that audiences wanted to get home earlier. The National Theater’s 6:30 p.m. trial was “an interesting experiment,” Isaacs said. “I will be watching closely.”

When the National announced its plan in October, some of Britain’s longest-serving theater critics called it overdue. Lyn Gardner, in the Stage newspaper, said that theater was a service industry that needed to respond to its audience’s changing needs, and many playhouses were “behind the curve.” Yet on social media and Britain’s lively theater message boards, some commentators were less enthusiastic, pointing out that it would be a challenge for anyone working outside London to make a 6:30 p.m. curtain, especially if they had to drive through the city’s congested traffic.

The National first discussed trying early starts about 18 months ago. At the end of 2022, with theater attendance significantly down from prepandemic levels, the theater convened a series of focus groups. Bayley, the marketing head, said that those groups considered several ideas, including discounted tickets and improved catering, and an early start was among the most popular.

The theater then surveyed 8,000 people, with similar results, Bayley said. Many respondents said that an early start would give them a chance to talk about the production afterward with friends, perhaps over dinner.

Theater start times have long been linked to meal times, according to Michael Burden, a professor at University of Oxford who has researched the connection. In 17th-century London, he said, everyone ate the day’s main meal at about 2 p.m. and would go to the theater afterward, with shows starting at about 4. (Aristocratic theatergoers would send their servants to the playhouse early to guarantee the best seats, Burden said.) Over the next 100 years or so, dining and work habits changed, pushing the main meal into the evening: By the 1800s, Burden added, the 7:30 p.m. curtain was common, and remains the London standard.

But perhaps times are changing. Cameron Mackintosh, the theater owner and producer behind West End hits including “Les Misérables,” “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” said in an interview that he was considering a 7 p.m. start for some new productions because audiences wanted to get home earlier.

Many theatergoers didn’t have the option to stay out late in London anymore, Mackintosh said. With high inflation, the cost of hotel accommodation is now “astronomic,” he added, so many out-of-towners want to get the last train home. Since the pandemic began, restaurants have also been closing earlier, Mackintosh said, meaning there are fewer opportunities to hang around after a performance.

“In the end, we have to put on shows when the public wants to see them,” Mackintosh said.

The shift to early starts appeared to be paying off for the National during the recent performance of “Till the Stars Come Down,” with only a handful of empty seats in the auditorium.

And when it was over, the theater’s foyer was empty within minutes, apart from a group of theater students and their friends chatting about the production.

One of them, Susie Safavi, 34, said that she had found the show moving. “I’d been through so much during that play,” Safavi said, “and after the curtain call happened, I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe the time. It was only 8:57 p.m.!” She wasn’t going home, though, she added. She was heading to the pub. There was a play to discuss.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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