Why stars can leave West End audiences cold

Published: 22 December 2014 at 10:20

Study by Anglia Ruskin academic examines public perception to ‘celebrity casting’

“Celebrity casting” can have a negative effect on audiences in London’s West End, according to research published in the latest edition of Arts Marketing: An International Journal.

The study was carried out by Dr Niall Caldwell of Anglia Ruskin University and brand consultant Kathryn Nicholson, and it doesn’t make encouraging reading for Strictly stars hoping to tread the boards in London’s Theatreland.

When asked whether the presence of a celebrity would make them more or less likely to see a show, the majority (64%) of those surveyed said it would depend entirely on the celebrity. 

The remainder of respondents were divided between “less likely to attend a theatre production with a celebrity in it” (21%) and “more likely” (15%). 

It found that famous, established actors were far more likely to attract people than celebrities from TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “search for a star” programmes.  Only 4% of people viewed this type of celebrity – or those known for simply being in the media limelight – as a positive. 

When asked to rank three facets of celebrity credibility – trustworthiness, expertise and attractiveness – audience members ranked expertise as the overwhelmingly single most important attribute.

The research, the first to investigate the phenomenon of celebrity casting, also found that younger audience members are significantly more likely to be positively influenced by the presence of a celebrity than older theatre-goers. 

Dr Caldwell, Principal Lecturer in Marketing at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“The practice of casting celebrities in an attempt to draw bigger audiences is now endemic, but unlike in advertising or marketing, the celebrities on the West End stage cannot be described as endorsers.  They do not just recommend the product, they are part of the experience itself.
“Some argue that it may damage theatre as an art-form.  Others suggest it is a suitable modern day method of encouraging people who may not otherwise have any interest, to go to the theatre.  But our research clearly shows that not all celebrities have the same effect.
“Theatre critics themselves are divided on the subject, although overall the opinion seems to be that if a celebrity can perform well they will be reviewed and applauded accordingly.
“One widely debated celebrity casting choice was that of David Tennant as Hamlet for the RSC in 2008, which spawned a huge amount of press on both sides of the debate.  Sir Jonathan Miller referred to Tennant as “that man from Dr Who”, while others described his performance as the best Hamlet they had ever seen.”