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Point-and-click theatre

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Recent reports in Gadget hinted at a revolutionary new approach to marketing and selling theatre in South Africa. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK explores the global and local trends that underpin the most dramatic change in stage production in 500 years.

American artist William T Wiley once declared: ‚You can’t automate in the arts. Since the sixteenth century there has been no change in the number of people necessary to produce Hamlet.‚

But neither Wiley nor William Shakespeare himself could have imagined what the 21st century had in store. In fact, the rewritten future of the theatre began in the very first year of the new century. In October 2000, US ticketing service Ticketmaster allowed basketball fans not only to book tickets online for a game at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, but also to print out their own tickets at home. The following year, they extended the option to cinemas, live concerts and theatre.

And finally, it has arrived in South Africa.

At the beginning of March, the Joburg Theatre announced that it had ended its relationship with Computicket, long regarded as the only game in town for ticketing. Instead, they built their own online booking system (at www. joburgtheatre.com), which allows patrons to choose the exact seats they want, rather than the general vicinity offered by Computicket.

And then, wonder of wonders, patrons can print out the tickets in the comfort of their own homes. No more queuing at retail outlets in the hope of having the correct combination of credit card, identity document and reference number ‚ any or all of which are sometimes required merely to collect the ticket.

The ‚print at home‚ option is made possible by the exact same technology that allows ariline boarding passes to be printed at home (see The Future has Landed, The Citizen, 29 January 2011). Each ticket has a unique bar code, which is read by a scanner at the theatre.

That’s where Joburg Theatre takes it one step further. While most theatres in the USA or UK still rely on a human ticket collector to scan the barcode with a handheld device, Joburg Theatre patrons are greeted by a high-tech device at the theatre door. It’s merely a stylised barcode scanner, but has the aura of Star Trek-style technology. Hold the ticket under the scanner, and it confirms your booking and seat location.

The technology itself is not revolutionary, but is part of a point-and-click revolution in the marketing of theatre. Consider the way social media is being used. For example, you can now view a preview of the upcoming show, The Sopranos, on YouTube. And Twitter and Facebook were the only media where patrons would have become aware of complaints about the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil show at The Dome, where the poor seating set-up prevented many patrons from being able to appreciate the beauty of the event.

Word-of-mouth on steroids and hi-tech promotion and ticketing are not the last words either. Mobile event ticketing has been around for five years internationally, and is likely to reach these shores before long. Next comes virtual ticketing, where only positive ID will be needed for entry ‚ although that’s more about trust than about technology.

Live theatre does not have to be confined to place, either. Last year Ster-Kinekor hosted a season of ‚live theatre at Cinema Nouveau‚ . Productions from the National Theatre in London were broadcast in high-definition via satellite to cinemas around the world ‚ with minimal additional production cost. Although the local version was recorded, it was screened in the same format as the live event, bringing the atmosphere of the National Theatre to suburban South Africa.

Some would argue that the core values of theatre production have still not changed in 500 years. But, were the Bard of Avon to be reawakened today, he would not recognise the support structures around that core.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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