Theatre audiences are getting older, and tickets for the West End aren't getting any cheaper. So where will the new generation of drama fans come from? Daniel Rosenthal discovers some unlikely saviours
Agatha Christie and James Bond as patron saints of theatre education? Sounds improbable. But last week 650 pupils from 33 secondary schools in and around London watched the West End hit Art thanks to an organisation funded by proceeds from the world's longest-running play, Christie's The Mousetrap, and to 007's most famous incarnation, Sean Connery, in his less famous guise as theatrical impresario.
The three school matinee performances of Art (the first took place in March and the last is on June 18) are the brainchild of the Mousetrap Foundation, established last year by the whodunnit's producer, Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen. "The Mousetrap has made a lot of money for a lot of people and I set up the foundation because such a success should put something back," says Sir Stephen.
"We felt our best contribution would be to try to secure the future audience for drama by bringing schoolchildren to see West End plays.
"Most theatre education covers workshops and so on, but the reality is that the vast majority of children will become audience members, not performers. The average age of theatre audiences is rising all the time, and we need to teach the young, who grow up on cinema and television, how to enjoy live drama."
Given the constraints on school budgets and West End producers' traditional reluctance to offer discounted tickets, fulfilling that goal required plenty of goodwill and money.
Enter Connery and David Pugh, the producers of Art, Yasmina Reza's immensely successful comedy about three male friends who fall out over a painting for which one of them has paid FFr200,000. Connery and Pugh's offer to hold three extra matinees at the Wyndhams Theatre, with pupils and staff admitted free, is unprecedented in the commercial sector.
Dafydd Rogers, associate producer of Art, says: "Like all commercial producers, we don't want to give concessions when we have a sell-out show like Art. But this was not about our losing or making money; this was about Sean and David wanting school kids to see live theatre.
"David Pugh trained as a teacher and knows very well that state schools who may be obliged to decide between buying new books or a new computer are going to find a trip to the theatre unaffordable."
The cast (Jack Dee, Mick Ford and Roger Allam in March; now replaced by Malcolm Storry, Richard Griffiths and Tony Haygarth) agreed to perform for free and hold post-show question-and-answer sessions. With the aid of donations from St Martin's Theatre, Westminster Arts and Associated Newspapers, the Mousetrap Foundation raised pound;10,000 to cover the Wyndham's staffing costs and the production of a 36-page teacher's study guide.
The response from schools has been enthusiastic. Deborah Khan, head of drama and dance at Thomas Tallis comprehensive in Blackheath, south London, took 20 A-level students to the March matinee. She says: "We frequently go to the National or the Royal Court, because the trips are heavily subsidised, but the discounts just aren't there for commercial shows.
"Art is not a typical schools play, but the performance generated useful responses - about a woman playwright's view of men, for example. The resource material was superb and the foundation has a clear understanding of teachers' needs."
Sir Stephen says that, while the foundation can cover its own administration costs, "a great deal of additional funding" will be required to support First Act, a major scheme due to be launched next January. Its aims include offering substantial school discounts for West End shows, workshops at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden and school visits by theatre professionals.
"I hope other producers will look at what we have done with Art and join in," says Sir Stephen. "But our ultimate hope, of course, is that a scheme like this becomes completely unnecessary, because the Government pays for every child to go to the theatre at least once in their schooling."
* At time of going to press, some places for the June 18 'Art' matinee were still available from The Mousetrap Foundation, St Martin's Theatre, West Street, London, WC2H 9NG. Tel: 0171 836 4388; Fax 836 4399; e-mail: Info@mousetrap-fdn.demon.co.uk