Monday’s at lunch are my normal time to write rants. Today’s is based around an article a friend sent me entitled “Arts Education Won’t Save Us from Boring, Inaccessible Theater“. In it (and I recommend reading it), the author discusses why the audience for live theatre remains white and greying. He opines that it isn’t because of a lack of arts education; rather, it is because of the content of the shows, the nature of the edifaces, and the policies they impose. Some of the ideas he discusses are ones that Ken Davenport has discussed before on his excellent Producers Perspective blog. I agree with the author somewhat, but disagree with him as well.
First, the goal of arts education is not to get people into the theatre. The goal of arts education is to encourage an appreciation of creativity in all of its forms: be in drama, comedy, dance, art, or music. The creative process in the individual informs other areas of life and produces more rounded individuals. Remember, what we call scientists today were philosophers in the past; their artistic side encouraged their scientific endeavors and vice-versa.
Does having younger playwrights bring younger people in the theatre? Not necessarily, because one never sees the playwright. What brings people into the theatre are good stories that are relevant to them; stories that are well-written and engaging. What does this mean in practice? The playwright doesn’t need to be young, but needs to understand the sensibilities of the young. This can be helped with an appropriate dramaturg who can shape the story so it appeals to a younger audience. A critical player in this is the Artistic Director, who also has the young sensibility. The artistic director needs to not only program for the reliable older audience, but include in the season mix material to challenge the older audience and bring in the younger audience.
When plays speak to the audience, the audience comes. A good example of this is the Pasadena Playhouse: when it presents plays with African-American themes, the African-American audience comes out in droves (and, alas, the non-African-American audience often doesn’t). The problem is that when those themes go away, the audience doesn’t stick. Audiences come out for specific shows; they aren’t subscribing.
I posit the notion that audiences don’t subscribe because of cost. A vision might be interesting, but when you have to drop $800 or more for two seats in one shot — well, it is easier to buy the seats for individual shows. One of the reasons I like the Colony Theatre is that they allow me to split my payment; I believe that if more theatres offered split payments for seasons (2 or 4 payments), they would get more subscribers.
Another reason theatres have trouble getting subscribers is that they don’t cultivate relationships. Relationships between the theatre and the audience are vital. From the audience perspective, the relationship makes you care about the theatre — it makes you want to support them, it makes you want to donate, it makes you care about the existence of the organization. From the theatre’s perspective, it allows you to know the audience, and just how far you can challenge them. It also creates your best ambassadors, for what brings people into the theatre is word of mouth.
This is the other thing that is hurting the theatre community: we are losing the voice of the critics. Trained critics help the audiences discover shows — they alert people to what might be of interest. Arts education might make you receptive to theatre, but unless you know what shows are out there you won’t go. For many theatres — especially small ones with no advertising budget — the only mediums are email and postcards, which tend to go only to audiences that already know you or know theatre. Critics are in major media outlets, and are seen much more broadly. Even if the critic doesn’t like the show, the description of the show might speak to you.
Lastly, the author blames theatre policies. I agree with him on some points — there should be an easier ability to obtain refunds if plans change or to reschedule tickets, but I can also see the problem that if tickets are returned too late, they can’t be easily resold. Other points he is off about — there is a certain etiquette that people must understand that is simple common courtesy: turn off your phones, don’t illuminate your face during a show, and arrive on time.
So what are your thoughts? How do we get more people to the theatre?