The Future of Scottish Theatre: Unpacking ‘Disappearing Act’ – Part 1

The Future of Scottish Theatre: Unpacking 'Disappearing Act' -


Scotland’s vibrant theatre scene, known for its creativity and innovation, has faced some critical challenges. Just over a month ago, during the Fringe Festival, six prominent Scottish producing theatres, including Dundee Rep & Scottish Dance Theatre, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, The Traverse, and Tron Theatre, released the ‘Disappearing Act?’ report. This comprehensive document, commissioned from Data Culture Change, offers invaluable insights into the current state of theatrical production in Scotland. In this series, we delve deep into the report’s findings and recommendations. Join us as we explore the intricacies of Scotland’s theatre landscape, its challenges, and the potential for a brighter future.

Part 1: Uncovering the Findings

Significant Scale and Impact:

The report suggests that Scottish producing theatre boasts impressive scale and impact. Over the period of 2017-2020, these six theatres collectively sold 423,000 tickets and generated a turnover exceeding £20 million. This remarkable achievement was the result of 106 productions, with a substantial 80% dedicated to commissioned or new works.

But, let’s add some context:

Yet, when we examine these figures in the broader context of the Scottish theatre scene, it becomes evident that there’s an incredible amount of room for growth. A rough calculation suggests that the six Scottish theatres accounted for only 10.3% of all theatre ticket sales and 6.8% of ticket revenue during the study period. In contrast, in 2018 alone, UK theatre revenue outside of London surpassed £510 million, with 18.8 million tickets sold.

Scotland’s limited population notwithstanding, the six Scottish theatres, selling around 100,000 tickets annually, seems a drop in the ocean.

To put that number into perspective, the collective seating capacity of these six theatres is approximately 2,890. With 100,000 tickets sold per year, that equates to just 34 full-capacity events or 69 half-capacity events. The Edinburgh Playhouse, boasting 3,059 seats, welcomes over 500,000 patrons annually. This commercial benchmark highlights that Scottish producing theatre should be aiming for far greater scale and significance.
The Edinburgh Playhouse – another full house © Rob McDougall

Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. Will the recommendations of ‘Disappearing Act?’ chart a new course? We’ll explore this in the next article of this series.

Decades of Cuts and Compounded Challenges:

The report underscores the impact of decades of government funding cuts, exacerbated by external factors. In three of the five study years, the group of theatres faced trading deficits, not least due to escalating costs stemming from building maintenance. On top of this, their core audience was eroded during the pandemic, further reducing revenue. As if this weren’t enough, the utilities cost crisis continues to add to the financial strain.

Is there a solution?

The reality is that the financial gap between viability and crisis, as eloquently explained by Joyce McMillan, is likely less than £5 million. Given the pivotal role these six theatres play in Scotland’s national theatrical production, this sum seems modest in the grand scheme of national budgets. For those who argue that the theatrical sector should be profitable or else go defunct, Baumol’s cost disease suggests almost all theatres would go bust without public funding.

However, by filling those empty seats, these theatres could significantly bolster their revenue. Whether through increasing audience attendance or enhancing their programming, there’s potential to bridge some of that £5 million gap. ‘Disappearing Act?’ believes it has identified the way forward, or at least part of it. Stay tuned for our examination of the report’s recommendations in the next article.

Lack of Scottish Representation in Theatre Consumption:

A striking revelation from the report is the disparity between theatre visits and Scottish-made theatre consumption. While 40% of Scottish households attended the theatre at least once during the study period, only 15% of the theatre they consumed was produced in Scotland. Furthermore, a mere 8% of ticket buyers attended the theatre at least twice a year on average.

The conundrum of accessibility:

It’s evident that traditional efforts to broaden theatre’s reach beyond privileged circles have yielded insufficient results. ‘ Disappearing Act’ evinces surprise in light of “plenty of supply, low ticket prices, significant investment in the creative product, and substantial spending on marketing.”

Now, let’s dissect this statement:

Starting with ‘low ticket prices,’ besides the Citizens Theatre’s commendable 50p ticket scheme, securing a seat for under £10 is a rarity, often with restrictive conditions for concessions. In comparison, cinema tickets, even with premium offerings, are generally more affordable.

As for ‘substantial spend’ on marketing, when was the last time you encountered a memorable piece of advertising for an upcoming Scottish production? When was the last time you saw, or heard a piece of marketing which didn’t seem tailor made for a privileged demographic?

The Scottish theatre landscape deserves a more comprehensive marketing approach to reach wider audiences.

Challenges in Attracting and Retaining Skilled Staff:

The report identifies the challenge of retaining skilled staff in the theatre industry stemming from a combination of increasing wage expectations, and a lack of professional development opportunities. The report points to the cost of living crisis, but let’s be clear: UK wages, in general, have stagnated for over well over a decade. The current crisis, while dire, is only the latest burden on an already strained system.

The solution within reach:

Let’s reiterate the obvious: Filling those empty seats could generate significant additional revenue, which could then be reinvested in staff wages and working conditions. While it won’t solve the financial challenges entirely, it provides an opportunity for theatres to help themselves. Institutions visibly getting their own houses into fighting shape can also argue much more effectively for government support to make up inevitable shortfalls.

In the next article of this series, we will dissect the recommendations put forth by ‘Disappearing Act?’ and evaluate their potential impact. Stay tuned for a closer look at the path forward for Scottish theatre, and some more honest thoughts.