How ticketing technology will change the way we go to the theatre

Will Longman
Will Longman

Last week, an interesting and somewhat nerdy conversation with Dominic Shaw, the director of the 'world's first Bitcoin-funded play' Silk Road, got me thinking about the future of theatre ticketing. We briefly touched on how the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin might affect theatre trips of the future.

He told me that soon enough, we'll all be paying for theatre tickets with virtual money. How far in the future that will be, remains to be seen, but as the world learns to embrace these new technologies, theatre will have to keep up. Does that mean that soon we'll be having our faces scanned by robot ushers? Maybe, but tech has already been influencing the theatregoing experience.

Paperless ticketing is one recent advancement that seems to be rightfully taking off. The Old Vic adopted the strategy of sending out tickets via email, with a QR code attached that can be scanned on the door. Press, who are often given a programme gratis for the purposes of fact-checking and informing a review, now receive a digital copy rather than a physical memento.

The Old Vic isn't the only company using this system; LW Theatres (recently rebranded from Really Useful Theatres) have made it possible websites like the one you're reading right now to sell paperless tickets for shows like School of Rock or Phantom of the Opera.

As part of Cameron Mackintosh's crackdown on touts for the West End opening of Hamilton, patrons were granted entry to the theatre when they presented the card used to book the seats, rather than have tickets sent out. Producers have claimed this has been a success.

But can we take it one step further? I'm flying to Edinburgh this week, and I'll be avoiding the faff and worry of whether I've printed/forgotten my boarding pass as it's saved on my phone. With a double tap, I can see the time of my flight, my seat, where to board the plane, as well as the digital code that will let me board. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, before you arrive at the theatre, didn't have to worry about queues at the box office, through which door to enter, or even where to find your pre-ordered interval drink?

On top of the added convenience, this has huge implications for the environmental footprint of a theatre. Some quick sums show that if everyone who went to the theatre in the West End last year (15.1million, according to Society of London Theatre stats) used a standard paper ticket, it would have used just over 30 tonnes of paper. And that doesn't include the receipts that are often printed with every ticket.

If you have a conscience, then you'll either recycle your tickets or, like me, have a hearty stash of years-worth of stubs stashed in a box in the back of a wardrobe. They serve as a memento, a more powerful, authentic reminder of your evening out than a selfie in the stalls. But if it means we can do our part for the sake of the planet, perhaps it's a luxury we should sacrifice.

While tech might make gaining physical access to a theatre easier, paying for tickets could in completely different ways.  

For many people, paying with the tap of a phone using their fingerprint is part of everyday life. Apple's Pay technology is secure enough for banks to trust when transacting using an iPhone, and it isn't restricted by the £30 limit placed when using plastic contactless cards without a pin. Maybe then, to make sure we are who we say we are, we will pay with our fingerprints, and verify we are the ticketholder with the same fingerprint when we arrive at the theatre. Essentially going one step further than the Hamilton scheme, removing the physical presence of a card with biometric security may all but eliminate the risk of touting.

That might seem a bit far-fetched at the moment, but one thing that will change is the use of cryptocurrencies in exchange for goods, as they grow and begin to bed into real-world life. More and more people will be looking to pay with currencies like Bitcoin.

These forms of money work on a system called blockchain, which is a public, decentralised database, so several computers can come to a consensus on whether certain data (usually financial balances) are genuine. The benefits of blockchain are being picked up on by ticketing professionals. The security benefits give companies full control over ticket flow: tickets can't be forged, resale can be closely monitored and tightly restricted, and the risk of fraud is minimised.

But this is expensive, relatively juvenile technology. While we're just finding our feet with the possibilities at theatre's disposal, perhaps it offers only a glimpse at how theatres might be operating a few decades down the line.

To be honest, this is mostly speculation. The first draft of my Black Mirror pitch where theatre tickets become currency and we are all stuck in a perpetual loop of watching Les Mis or the latest James Graham play just to generate enough money to survive. But change will come, and as tech-savvy millennials become older and naturally inherit the title of theatre's mainstream audience, it will be embraced.

Photo credit: Tedx Stuttgart (flickr) used under Creative Commons BY NC ND 2.0


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