‘BP or not BP?’ – That is the Question of Student Theatre Subsidies

From odious oil spills to fat-cat theft – Rose Crees discusses why subsidised student theatre tickets are too good to be true.

On the 28th of July 2016 BP announced, to the great dismay of all self-respecting and morally-sound theatre and art lovers in the UK, that they had signed (in the blood of people and animals across the globe) a new five-year sponsorship deal with four leading British cultural institutions that is due to begin in 2018. This deal with BP means that, until 2023, they will continue to sponsor the National Portrait Gallery’s annual ‘BP Portrait Award’, the British Museum’s special exhibitions (a partnership spanning since 1996 which sees the museum equipped with its own BP lecture theatre), the Royal Opera House’s ‘BP Big Screens’ and, most importantly for students, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘RSC Key’ scheme that offers 16-to-25-year-olds £5 tickets to performances in Stratford and London.

Image: Stratford-upon-Avon Herald

In April this year, before a performance of the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare himself walked the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as he interrupted a spokesperson for the BP sponsorship scheme (and ‘accidentally’ called it the ‘Oil’ Shakespeare Company). The pair were protesters from the group ‘BP or not BP?’ who, in retaliation to the RSC’s willingness to continue accepting sponsorship that allows for the subsidisation of student tickets, invaded the main auditorium’s stage to express their concern to the ticket buyers themselves. The Bard claimed that ‘[he] should rather pluck [his] plays from the earth than have oil spill across [his] legacy’ and, while the company submerged the protesters’ performance into darkness, their point was heard – to experience the arts and culture, patrons should not have to endorse companies and sponsors who are destroying the earth and committing ethical crimes.

It is no news that theatre tickets are notoriously expensive. With a ticket for the RSC’s upcoming production of Twelfth Night starting at £10 for a nosebleed seat and spanning to a chest-tightening £70 for a spot in the stalls, it is no wonder that arts-loving students flock to get their hands on the BP sponsored £5 tickets that provide a decent view of the stage and a low risk of altitude sickness. Across the country, it is not just the RSC who are pioneering subsidised student ticket schemes: the National Theatre runs an ‘Entry Pass’ scheme sponsored by Delta Airlines offering £7.50 tickets to 16-to-25-year-olds; the Almeida Theatre, which is an associate partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, offers a student discount on the second most expensive tickets Monday through to Thursday evenings, and Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and Chichester Festival Theatre offers full-time students half-price tickets from Monday to Thursday and is sponsored by Rolls-Royce. While corporate sponsorship opens a wealth of doors for students who want to experience theatre, every time they buy a ticket are posed with an ethical conundrum – is a theatrical experience worth endorsing a morally dubious corporation?

Image: David Tett/RSC

In the unlikely possibility that anyone reading this article might have been living in a cave or simply found that the news surrounding these companies was too dismal and depressing to give any attention over the past few years, here is a brief reminder of what they stand for.

In 2010 BP were responsible for the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico which was labelled the worst environmental disaster in US history, has led to Bottlenose Dolphins dying at twice the normal rate since and stained 1,100 miles of coastline and 1,200 square miles of sea floor with 134 million gallons of crude oil. In addition to bleeding the earth dry and using the remains as a mop for its mess, BP unapologetically hosts connections with the authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, known for using the profits of the country’s vast energy supplies to fund a corrupt elite. BP are connected with the Indonesian government despite its occupation of West Papua and accusations of genocide that aggressively oppress Indigenous Papuans and their right to rule themselves.

Image: KPA/Zuma/Rex Features

It is not just BP who are using their corporate power to wreak havoc. In the last year, social media has been littered with videos depicting the maltreatment of passengers on board American flights. Delta Airlines is not exempt from such scandals and in October 2016 Tamika Cross, an African-American physician, was blocked from helping an unwell passenger by a flight attendant who refused to believe her credentials and instead sought out a white, male doctor. And if PwC’s epic blunder and responsibility for the Moonlight/La La Land-gate at this year’s Oscars was not enough to make anyone hate them, then the news that they were the official auditors of Tesco for 32 years until it came to light that the supermarket chain had been overstating their profits to a sum of £263 million as far back as 2012 surely will. Rolls-Royce too are not exempt as it emerged in January that they were responsible for UK Serious Fraud Office’s biggest investigation ever – the engineering company were fined £671 million by various global regulators for corruption and bribery over the last 25 years. The point is clear: for students trying to access theatre, there is a choice between paying astronomical prices or endorsing companies whose moral motives are more than questionable through student ticket purchases.

Unless students are particularly fond of the destruction of the earth, exploitation of its people, racism, capitalist bullshit and general financial snaky-ness, then something needs to change. This is a different question to ‘BP or not BP?’, which asks whether the arts should accept blood money from the oil industry to fund its success, but is a question of whether students should be forced to endorse firms that are destroying their own futures just to experience the theatre. This active, engaged and intelligent group of people are not being represented by the theatres they love because theatre funding is not being responsibly considered with the beliefs of its patrons at heart.

‘Theatres are clued into the theatrical needs of the young. Just not when it comes to tickets.’

There is a deep and saddening irony that companies such as the RSC, the National Theatre, The Almeida and Chichester Festival Theatre are producing cutting-edge and radical theatre that catches the attention of student theatre-goers and represents the issues surrounding many corporate sponsors. RSC Key is aimed at lowering the average age of the audience and there is something oddly pleasurable about seeing prime stalls seats left empty after the interval as grey-haired patrons abandon a production mid-way because it is presumably too non-traditional for their taste. It means the theatre is doing something right by keeping productions relevant. Time-after-time productions such as the RSC’s Titus Andronicus, a check on political leadership being performed now when society needs it most; the National Theatre’s Angels in America which tackles LGBTQ rights, refugee issues and, once again, questionable power figures; The Almeida’s Hamlet that emphasises the role of surveillance in society; and Chichester Festival Theatre’s co-production of Things I Know to be True that tackles transgender issues, prove that these theatres are clued into the theatrical needs of the young. Just not when it comes to tickets.

Image: National Theatre


This is a call for change for theatres to practice watch they preach, to pioneer action alongside intelligent and relevant theatre by accepting funding that is accountable to students who rely on subsidised tickets. It is possible too: in February this year, English and Theatre students here at the University of Leeds received an email offering them £5 tickets for the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Romeo and Juliet. These tickets were subsidised by J M Glendinning Insurance Brokers who, as far as is known, have no record of financial, environmental, social or racial misdemeanours. Furthermore, regional theatre companies such as Leeds Youth Opera offer half-price tickets for students on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and have a clean record as far as their sponsorship is concerned.

Unless students are particularly fond of the destruction of the earth, exploitation of its people, racism, capitalist bullshit and general financial snaky-ness, then something needs to change.’

However, this is an issue that needs to expand to the leaders of national performance, who should push British theatre to accept ethically sound sponsors for the cutting-edge productions of which they are so proud. Students are a quintessential part of the future and theatre is integral to holding society to account, giving voices to the unheard and comprehending modern phenomenon in a theatrical context. With the current state of corporate sponsorship, this is an inharmonious marriage, one that needs fixing for theatre to be truly representative.

Rose Crees

(Image courtesy of RSC)