The purpose of this paper is to investigate the practice of casting celebrity performers in London West End theatres. The paper uses the literature on celebrity to explore the impact that casting a celebrity has on the London theatre audience.
The pervasiveness of celebrity culture forms the background and starting point for this research. In the first phase, theatre managers, directors and producers were interviewed to explore their views on the practice of celebrity casting. In the second phase, an audience survey was conducted. The approach taken is exploratory and is intended to illuminate the conditions under which a successful celebrity-focused strategy can be constructed.
A distinction between fame and celebrity was drawn by both theatre professionals and audiences, with celebrity status being seen as something that is created by media exposure and being in the public eye. This is in contrast to fame, which is earned by being famous for something, or some achievement. Theatre audiences are more likely to be attracted by celebrities who have theatrical expertise and not by someone known simply through film, television or the all-pervasive gossip columns. Celebrities with a background in theatre and film were seen to strongly draw audiences to the theatre, as opposed to those with a background in reality TV shows, search-for-a-star shows or for being half of a famous couple.
The paper is focused on the theatre and makes an original contribution to the current discussion of the power wielded by celebrities. It is the first empirical research on this aspect of the theatre business. Its contribution lies in understanding audience members’ interpretation and understanding of celebrity to ascertain the extent to which they perceive celebrities as credible to perform theatre. This is based on a differentiation between their mediated fame and expertise. It is helpful and useful information for producers when deciding whether or not to cast a celebrity and to which audiences that the celebrity might appeal.
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