The hangover

Lewis Ironside is the founder of Magnificent Bastard Productions Ltd and co-creator of Shit-faced Shakespeare, a stage show that gets a cast member drunk before chucking them on stage to deliver their lines, often with hilarious results. Here he explains how his theatre at the ‘bottom of a bottle’ is part of a cunning plan to attract a younger crowd

According to UK-based research group Audience Agency, the average age of a British theatregoer in 2016 was 52; this includes all the sticky children packed into pantos, musicals and live productions of their favourite books. In fact, the Audience Agency discovered that the largest single group of theatregoers fell “between the ages of 65 and 74” and that just 15% of the population will see two or more stage shows a year.

Slightly more concerning is that combined data from UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre reveal that the UK spends less than GBP41 (€46) per household per year on theatre tickets. The Audience Agency predicts that by 2026 the entire theatre industry will begin to see a decline in audiences unless that average age can be lowered and audiences replenished for the future.

As a theatre producer, I thoroughly enjoy the patronage of 52 year olds, their applause and their coin. Still, 52 is a significant number. It’s exactly two thirds of the average UK life expectancy, there are 52 weeks in a year, there are 52 cards in a full deck, and its the number of white keys on a grand piano.

What of those young people we hope will step in to replenish the older generation in the theatre stalls? Where are they now and how do we get them to engage with theatre as a regular and enjoyable form of entertainment?

It’s not that today’s UK theatre industry is in crisis. On the contrary, it has a healthy GBP1.1bn (€1.2bn) annual revenue. It does, however, lag behind the UK cinema sector (GBP1.32bn), UK live music (GBP4.1bn), and the UK video game industry (GBP4.3bn) – all of which are dwarfed by the UK’s combined TV industry revenue (GBP11.4bn).

All these markets attract younger audiences: for example, cinema’s largest consumer group is aged 15 to 24. A 20-something on a budget can subscribe to Netflix for GBP7.45 a month; compare this to an on-the-day ticket to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at GBP350 and you can see where the problem lies.

How can we as individuals address this? How can my own little company contribute to a movement to replenish a generation of theatregoers? How do we get the audiences of the future to engage less with YouTube and more with the proscenium arch?

One approach is to be daring. I am part of a young and growing theatre company that goes by the classy name Magnificent Bastard Productions Ltd. We’ve been running for several years and are probably best known for our original hit show Shit-faced Shakespeare.

Shit-faced Shakespeare © Rah Petherbridge
Shit-faced Shakespeare cast © Rah Petherbridge

We turn highbrow theatrical action upside down by reducing something like a well-known Shakespearian play (Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice and so on) into a tight one-hour romp. We pull the finest actor-comedians we can procure and then marinade one cast member in alcohol for four hours prior to curtain up. The results are delicious, if somewhat difficult to control. Our shows frequently feature foul language, bad behaviour, partial nudity, terrible singing, misguided acrobatics, actual nudity and occasionally some Shakespeare.

This show has been running since 2010 and is now a year-round international enterprise with annual productions at London’s Leicester Square Theatre, Edinburgh, Brighton and Great Yorkshire Fringe festivals, with ongoing productions across the US in Boston, Austin, Atlanta and Minnesota.

We employ over 140 performers in the US and UK and Shit-faced Shakespeare alone has been seen by over 150,000 paying audience members worldwide. The shows themselves generate revenue of over GBP250,000 a year in the UK – most of which is distributed directly back to the creative team – while maintaining a ticket price averaging less that GBP20 for customers across all markets. This is ‘fringe’ theatre on a larger than usual scale with audiences in excess of 400 per performance.

Shit-faced Shakespeare © Rah Petherbridge
Shit-faced Shakespeare © Rah Petherbridge

We’ve won multiple awards and critical acclaim along the way – “See it before the Scottish Government bans it,” said the Edinburgh Guide – but we have also been subject to our fair share of negative press and criticism. It would certainly be accurate to say that not everyone in the theatre community has welcomed us into the industry with open arms.

And yet, we are succeeding in our mission: our audiences are significantly younger than the industry average: our UK sales data shows that our largest group of attendees is aged 25-45, while the average Shit-faced Shakespeare punter is in his or her mid 30s.

Our business model has been to actively mirror the age range of our own company. I have always fought to keep our prices as low as possible to ensure that we’re both competitive and affordable to those (younger audiences) who want to see our work.

I get why people unfamiliar with what we do might be cynical about our approach: from the outside Shit-faced Shakespeare might look like a dirty drinking game that desecrates the sacred foundations of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s famous bard. It could also seem like a show that soaks up precious audiences who might have otherwise spent their hard-earned money at the Globe or on a touring adaptation of Cymbeline.

This is far from the truth: our company is packed with Shakespeare lovers who are committed to the work we produce and the source texts they come from. I myself trained as a classical actor with many of the company’s founding members, who all graduated from London’s East 15 Acting school in 2005. Our members have performed at the Globe, The National Theatre and across the world in various sober Shakespeare productions – but we do not subscribe to idle ‘Bardolatry’.

Many of our audiences are first time Shakespeare watchers who are only now returning to the texts they felt had been poisoned with ‘academic rigour’ during their school years.

Shit-faced Shakespeare cast and company © Rah Petherbridge
Shit-faced Shakespeare cast and company

Our Shit-faced shows feature many sober scenes too; we are sneaking pure Shakespeare under the radar to people who have ostensibly come to see a drunk actor perform iambic pentameters in public. The show is the bait we use to hook them onto live theatre. Audiences frequently comment to us after shows that they want to see more live theatre, even if Shit-faced Shakespeare was their first experience. In the words of one enthused audience member after a recent show, Shit-faced Shakespeare is ‘what theatre’s really meant to be like!’ After all, Elizabethan theatre audiences were famed for being bawdy.

Yes, Shit-faced Shakespeare can be called a gimmick, but it’s also a ‘gateway drug’ to doing ‘hard theatre’ in later life. We’re proud of that.

I myself am several years off the magic number of 52 but, when I do hit my fifties, I hope a ravenous appetite for live theatre remains. As a producer, I know that by reaching out to a wider range of tastes we can do our part to make that happen. By only catering for the very young, the middle-aged, the elderly, and the very wealthy, we risk losing the theatre industry to complacency and avarice. Let’s not be afraid of the popular. Let’s not be afraid of the accessible, the gimmicky and the fun – it’s all part of our strategy to survive.