If we want theatre for the masses, we need grants to target audiences | David Edgar

Early experience of theatre, either as participants or spectators, is vital to encourage children, but the opposite is happening

What is theatre for? Is it an economic motor or a social instrument? Or, as the Greeks thought, a fundamental part of the democratic process, as vital as voting? And what the hell are its audiences doing sitting there in the dark?

I am one of a group of a playwrights and academics who have tried to answer the last question in a report, Critical Mass, which forms part of a major research project by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to define cultural value (what people get from the arts that they can't get anywhere else). Over the past 10 months we have surveyed audiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the Young Vic in London and Plymouth's Drum theatre.

There was good and bad news. The good is that audiences take their theatre hugely seriously. Most started young: 60% of our sample had been to the theatre before their 10th birthday, and many had performed at school and beyond. Audiences think about the shows they are going to beforehand, and almost everybody discusses the plays they have seen afterwards. For one respondent, theatre going provides a shared experience "you can talk about, and reminisce over in years to come".

Asked about what they value about theatre, "liveness" came top. But something fascinating happens over time. Asked what they got from a show immediately after a performance, most people mentioned sensual aspects and specific dramatic moments. Two months on, what they remember is meaning – 67% of our respondents connected what they had seen to events in their own lives, and 84% to contemporary events, from Korean purges to Plebgate.

The bad news is twofold. Although the age range of our respondents has a reasonable spread, their educational status does not: 70% had degrees, more than half at postgraduate level. In this, our sample reflects national trends. In 2012 the cultural historian Robert Hewison analysed a range of studies, all of which confirmed that the most likely theatre-goers are highly educated Londoners, with adults from ethnic minorities the least likely.

The other bad news arises out of the good. If, as we found, the theatre-going habit starts with early theatre visits and participation in drama, if it continues to be buttressed and deepened by sympathetic familial and social networks, then the later you start, the less likely you are to place theatre at the centre of your life.

In speeches last month the culture secretary, Sajid Javid, and his shadow, Harriet Harman, rightly insisted that arts organisations expand their social and ethnic reach. But there's a danger in writing off the people who actually go the theatre (or flock in extraordinary numbers to see shows live-streamed to cinemas). Graduates are people, too. And if they go to the theatre, they are more likely to be women than men. Actual audiences showed us that theatre provides most value as a form of lifelong learning rather than an occasional treat. How, then, to extend these benefits?

The first, obvious way to do that is to give children early experience of theatre, as participants as well as spectators. This is exactly the opposite of what is happening: in primary school, participation in arts activities is down by a third since 2010 (and the number sitting arts subjects at GCSE is declining). The last thing the Arts Council should be doing is cutting grants to companies that appeal to working-class audiences and children, such as Red Ladder in Leeds and Birmingham's Big Brum. And companies should continue to extend the theatre experience beyond the show's duration.

Remarkably for a Conservative politician, Javid hardly mentioned the economic case for the arts, celebrating instead their power to move and transport. For the people we surveyed, theatre provided much more than "mere" entertainment. It bound them closer to their partners and families, gave them experiences of unique intensity, and expanded their view of the world. As one respondent put it: "It's hugely valuable to me. I would be bereft if I was unable to go."


David Edgar

The GuardianTramp

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