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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Thirty years ago this summer, a wooden hut appeared in Leicester Square and changed the London theatre forever.
That tiny building, which officially opened on August 10, 1980, was London’s first half-price ticket booth, and it’s gone on to sell almost 11 million tickets to more than 1,200 shows.
The booth, which is operated by the Society of London Theatre, was officially renamed “TKTS” in 2001, thanks to a special licensing arrangement with Theatre Development Fund. According to Paul James, SOLT’s commercial manager, the shared name makes a powerful statement: “We’re very much trying to get the message over that there are two major theatre capitals in the world, and when you’re in either one, you can count on TKTS,” he says.
Of course, despite sharing a name, the TKTS booths in London and New York have their own personalities and face their own challenges. For instance, there are several ticket booths in the West End—some are legitimate businesses and some are scalping outfits squatting in abandoned storefronts—that have forced TKTS to modify its approach. In recent years, the London booth has begun accepting credit cards and offering tickets to select performances several days in advance.
More importantly, though, SOLT has clarified what makes TKTS stand apart from for-profit booths and scalpers. “It’s a crucial thing for us: We’re not just a shop,” says James. “Every penny we make is plowed back into the theatre.” And indeed, a sale at the London booth funds a range of SOLT programs that support everything from rising actors to underserved audiences.
James has been surprised to learn how much this support matters to audiences. “We used to assume that people were just buying a ticket and that was that,” he says. “I don’t think we appreciated the relevance of where the money goes, but there are many people who are interested to know that we fund the theatre.”
Speaking of relevance, James notes that in the last thirty years, there have been countless predictions that technology will make TKTS obsolete. But while SOLT is planning to offer online ticketing, the London booth has weathered the computerized storm, even posting a nine percent increase in sales this year.
“Face-to-face, physical ticket outlets still have a place in the internet world,” says James. “I think it’s part of the fun and appeal. You can go and decide what you want to see while you’re in the queue. You can talk to people around you. Certainly we have to adapt, but the queues at the booth suggest that nothing like having a ticket in your hand.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor