Should the Danish government continue to fund Theatre?

Black Madonna

writer icon Signe Hammeleff     Sofie Amalie Klougart   |   Culture     🕐 07. Jun. 2018

Theatre as an art form has survived for centuries. The word theatre has its origin in the antique and means place to see from. However, these days our consumption of entertainment is dominated by streaming services such as Netflix, and video sites like YouTube. They are easy to access and provide a large selection of genres. 

The Internet provides quick and cheap access to entertainment. Is the rise of internet streaming services leading to the death of live theatre? If so, how can theatre keep itself alive and relevant to audiences today?

According to internet newspaper Altinget, the Danish state makes an annual donation of 1.3 billion DKK to more than 100 Danish theatres. The Ministry of Culture made a list which showed that five theatres in Copenhagen sold 2 411 tickets for every 1 million DKK that they received in financial support under the 2012/2013 season. The number of tickets sold overall, amongst all the theatres receiving support, was 1.4 million in the 2012/2013 season.

However, Stig Jarl, the associate professor for Institute of Art and Art Science, says to go easy on the numbers because the donations should not be built on data based only on money and quantity of visitors. 

"[It] does not say anything about the quantitative or qualitative development of the theatres in recent years", Jarl says. In other words, you cannot put a price on the quality of live theatre. 

Spending money

It is not every actor who makes enough money to live on, and even fewer who become a household name and can demand a high salary. If the money is not going to the actors, where does it go then? 

“It has been a tradition before, that everything should be [with] new staging – even if we staged a classic.”, said theatre director Morten Hesseldahl to Politiken back in 2015. The creating of new scenography, costumes and the overall production are likely the biggest costs of the theatre's budgets, in particular in the Opera genre.

It is important to hold on to the quality of the visual effects so as to maintain the theatre's relevance and appeal to audiences. Even though they are costly, they are, in spite of everything, in competition with an infinity of entertainment value found elsewhere.

Reaching the younger generation
What makes the theatre unique as opposed to online streaming services, is the experience of live theatre. Streaming services may be convenient, but they rarely achieve the same level of excitement and expectation as a play might have. Seeing live theatre is a unique moment, tickets are often booked in advance and the experience cannot be postponed or re-watched in the way that a Netflix show can be. 

Live theatre also creates an intimacy between the audience and the actors. Theatre is authentic and present, in a way that movies and series have so far not managed to be. This could go a long way towards explaining why theatre is still alive as an art form. 

According to an article from 2017 written by Ronnie Jeppesen, drama teacher and actor, the discussion should not focus on the money, because “There are a lot of audiences in the Danish theatres…”. The focus should be on the young people that do not go to the theatre. In Jeppesen’s opinion, the theatres fail to invite them in. The most they done to appeal to younger audiences is create an Instagram account or a Snapchat profile, which Jeppesen deems “Not enough…”.

What is relevant?
Numbers from the Altinget article show that the theatres selling the highest number of tickets are the ones that are most established. This group of theatres is named “The Copenhagen Theatre Cooperation”. They shield a group of five different theatres in Copenhagen. They are able to make classic plays, but also promote new ways of thinking and less safe pieces, with the aim of exploring what the theatre can do. By evolving the different means of theatrical effects such as manuscript, sound, light, and scenography, they create an inventive environment. They are able to do this as they are established enough to be able to survive economically. 

The wish to attract audiences and sell tickets forces most theatres to play safe. This means staging plays where the story has already been made popular by cinema or television. According to Danish Dramatists, this is a problem because it prevents the theatres from lifting up new scripts, which have a modern relevance. It may be that this lack of relevance is what keeps so many young people from attending live theatre because they are not able to see their lives reflected in the performances on the stage.

An example of this is the extremely controversial play, Black Madonna, whose full title was deemed too controversial to appear in most publications and on ticketing websites. The play debuted on 30th of April 2018 in the Sort/Hvid theatre in Copenhagen. It questions whether it is possible to change race and if it is ever acceptable to do so. The play has caused a lot of anger and heated discussion, and the theatre has been accused of being racist, which is what caused them to adapt the play's title. 

Despite the controversy, Black Madonna is very relevant to the conversation. The freedom to choose who or what a person identifies as is a much-discussed issue in 2018. The controversy and debates contributed to a high amount of media coverage for the play, which likely explains why performances are already selling out.


It is crucial that the theatres do not shy away from difficult topics in culture and society. As any other art form, theatres have an opportunity to draw attention to a lot of issues in the world, such as self-expression and sexuality. They are in the position to lead an audience to evaluate both themselves and the world around them. 

These days it appears it is not enough to merely stage a classic if the theatres want to sell tickets, even if the classics have their audience. Even a classic piece of theatre sometimes needs to be made relevant to the times we live in. Theatre has to stand out in order to keep up with all the other entertainment options.

The Danish theatres are not dying. Yet, most of them fail to attract a young audience, seemingly due to the lack of relevance in their choice of plays and operas. If the Danish theatres dared to take more risk by putting on newer productions, branding them better through Instagram and Facebook, they might reach the younger audience. 

While state funding is vital to keeping theatres running, is it the theatres own responsibility to remain relevant, to make a change and to renew themselves?

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