How Should Theatre Respond if the "Star" is off?
It’s time we discussed this issue…again!
Recently, Carrie Hope Fletcher received a message regarding, as did one of the understudies for the role of Cinderella, asking for a percentage refund on the ticket because Carrie was off (I believe she’s reduced the number of shows as she’s struggling to fully recover from the London Marathon). Her follow-up tweet has received a lot of attention and sparked a lot of conversation regarding the disappointment people can feel if the person they hoped to see isn’t playing a role. As Carrie herself said - if you book to see Beyoncé you expect to get Beyoncé. If she’s ill you would be right to expect the show to be cancelled. If you book for Cinderella and Carrie Hope Fletcher is off, you still get Cinderella.
While Cinderella isn’t sold on Carrie’s name, she is a draw. There are so many great people in the west end but as people build up an army of fans people will want to see that person which, as Carrie has seen, can be a double-edged sword given the disappointment people will feel if she’s not on. But the advertising focuses on the show making it clear that is what you are booking for.
Before diving into what may be more controversial, I’m sure there are a few things we can all agree on. Understudies and standbys are incredible, learning multiple roles and being able to perform a show at a moment’s notice, sometime mid show is amazing and they are the hero’s that keep theatre going. I’m sure we also agree that while you can still appreciate other people playing a role it is still disappointing if someone you had hoped to see who you are a fan of is off when you see a show. But it is wholly unacceptable to message that person to criticise them for being off. Are you really a fan if you want to make them feel worse? What outcome are you looking for - an offer to perform in your living room? Accept that these things happen and Be Kind!
But we need to have a conversation about the role theatres play in this and what we expect of them.
One thing we should address, which came up multiple times in the response to Carrie’s tweet, is the opinion (which sometimes seems widely held) that people are free to see shows many times. There seems to be measurement made of how big a “fan” you are by how many times you’ve seen someone perform. Whether you saw Heathers once in the last run or three times a week doesn’t dictate how much you like the show. In response to Carrie’s tweet people were saying how much they love to see other people put a spin on a role (which is great to see) and others saying they’d simply go another day to see Carrie. Implicit in these responses is an assumption that people see each show multiple times. We need to realise most people don’t see a show more than once and many people can’t afford to, especially if they live outside London (or away from regional theatres) with the additional travel, food and potential accommodation costs, which also often removes the ability to take advantage of day tickets and lottery tickets which make theatre more affordable. So for many people “just seeing it again” is not an option.
So while it is disappointing not to see a specific performer is there ever a case for wanting a refund? The Southbank centre ran into criticism of a note they put out when Dove Cameron was ill. While badly worded in a way that seemed critical of the role’s understudy they had realised a lot of people booked to see her specifically and rather than have a lot of angry customers they allowed people to exchange tickets if they wanted to. We wonder if this should be done more regularly?
When Sister Act was announced it was advertised as “Whoopi’s Back!” With tickets close to £300 for some seats. Would people have bought those seats at £300 if Whoopi wasn’t in it? Doubtful. And what if every sale had a bold disclaimer saying “there may be unforeseen circumstances meaning Whoopi can’t perform such as illness. Remember you are purchasing a ticket for the show so in those cases the show will continue”? Even a less heavy-handed message would have deterred many potential buyers.
With Funny Girl it was sold as Sheridan Smith, not Funny Girl, which again created a barrage of criticism.
The producers bear much of the blame for this. If you choose to advertise a person then people buy for that reason even if they know nothing about the show, which, let’s be honest, is often the aim. This isn’t even a question of whether “stunt casting” is good but rather what happens if they person is off. I’m looking at Waitress for this.
Maybe we should adopt the Broadway approach, where if someone’s name is “above” the show name they can get a refund if they’re not on. But maybe it should be wider than this. Should we effectively penalise people who booked a show because their favourite YouTuber / Boyband member / soap opera personality is in it (rather than booking the show) when that is exactly what the producers asked them to do? Should we accept there may be some cases when this is necessary? Or do we put clearer disclaimers on ticket purchases that no performer is guaranteed? This is not something that will be easily resolved.
Let us know your thoughts and what changes, if any, you’d like to see.