Is Earlier Better for Theater Start Times?

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Alex Marshall

In an effort to entice audiences back after the pandemic, Britain’s National Theater is testing a 6:30 p.m. curtain.

At 6:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, most London theatergoers were still busy at work, or eating a preshow dinner, or maybe waiting at home for a babysitter.

Except at the National Theater.

There, about 450 theater fans were already in their seats, where the curtain had just gone up on “Till the Stars Come Down,” a dark comedy about a wedding that goes disastrously wrong. That night was the first performance in a six-month trial to see if starting some shows at 6:30 p.m. instead of 7:30 can lure back theatergoers who, since the coronavirus pandemic began, don’t want to stay out late in London anymore.

The early performances were “marginally outselling” other midweek shows, said Alex Bayley, the National Theater’s head of marketing. The theater will wait to see the trial results before making the early starts a permanent fixture.

In interviews in the bustling foyer before the show, 20 attendees said that they thought the early start was a good idea. Ruth Hendle, 65, an accountant, said that it meant she wouldn’t have to run out at the end to catch the last train home. “I’m too old to be doing that anymore,” she said. Mary Castleden, 68, said that an early finish would mean an easier drive home.

The only complaints concerned the lack of time to have dinner first. “I hope they’re not eating food in this play,” said Karim Khan, 29, “otherwise I might get hungry.” (Khan did not get his wish: Soon after the play began, the ensemble cast performed a scene in which they snacked from an overflowing buffet.)

In New York, there has been some movement on curtain times, too. Jason Laks, the Broadway League’s general counsel, said that about 10 years ago, an 8 p.m. theater start was sacrosanct. Now, there was “a trend to a 7 p.m. curtain,” he said, although he noted that that shift began before the pandemic.

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