The Playgoer: Be like BAM?

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Be like BAM?

Kate Taylor has a nice provocative piece in the Sun today reminding us that BAM has succeeded in one area all New York theatres claim to be aiming at: attracting younger audiences. As Taylor argues, it's not just the programming and the pricing.

The major obstacle is ambience, and whether the many aspects of the evening — the performance, the physical environment, the pre- and post-show activities, the crowd — add up to an appealing experience. When you're in your 20s or 30s and work long hours, you want your evening activity to be socially, as well as intellectually and artistically, gratifying. Even if that gratification is just the vibe in the room, the feeling that you're among peers and sharing an experience, that's enough. It's the same feeling you enjoy at a bar or a club: the sense that you're part of a scene.
This reminded me of something I heard Will Frears at a panel discussion last year about the differences between his theatregoing back home in London and in NYC; here, he looks around and almost never feels like "this is my crowd." I think he meant the older audiences, mostly, but it applies to the surroundings as well.

Taylor spotlights some of the big strategic choices BAM has made in the last decade--the big cafe, the movie theatre--to become a "destination" for 20 & 30-somethings. I had never thought of the significance of the movie theatre, assuming there was no crossover business in getting those audience to the theatrical offerings. But maybe I was wrong. And BAM president Karen Hopkins make a good point:
Ms. Hopkins called the cinema "a built-in marketing bonanza," and said she is surprised that more performing arts centers haven't added one. "The cinema business has the cheapest tickets, the youngest audience, and it puts you in business 365 days a year," she said. Attendance at BAM Rose Cinemas has grown steadily, to 195,000 people in the most recent fiscal year.
Get people--younger people--at least walking in and out of that space on a daily basis. It's something the Public lobby always has tried to do, but never succeeded. I actually feel it more at the London National Theatre, despite the many tourists and pensioners.

(But note to BAM--it would be extra inviting if you at least had some chairs in the lobby to hang out in, even before the show. The Cafe upstairs has now become too expensive and sit-down for casual drop-in. Are you just afraid the local homeless will flock in? (That being the reason for the elimination of most "public seating" in the city.))

But there's another big factor, that Taylor is absolutely right to point out: the 'B' in BAM.
The borough is full of young people and families, émigrés both from Manhattan and from around the world. Over the last 10 years, the proportion of Brooklyn residents in the audience has grown significantly, to more than 40%, from around 25%, BAM's vice president of marketing and communications, Lisa Mallory, said. (About 85% of the audience, in total, comes from New York City.) Ms. Mallory said she attributes this not to a change in BAM's marketing, but to its audience simply moving to Brooklyn from Manhattan.
If you want to attract a certain audience, go to where that audience is--if you're not there already, like BAM. That's just what a couple of companies are doing, like Theatre For A New Audience, whose AD Jeffrey Horowitz reminds us that this will soon appear basic bottom-line common-sense as well:
[H]e sees Brooklyn as the future for his organization and others, because there is still real estate available, and hence room to create a performing arts scene. "In Manhattan, there is no more space," he said. " Joe Papp [the founder of the Public Theater] got the Astor [Library Building] from the City for a dollar, and Ellen Stewart [the founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club] got her theater [also for a low price]. That doesn't happen anymore."
Yes. That doesn't happen anymore.

This makes me realize how unfortunate it actually is that the only new theatre spaces in Manhattan end up being in barren industrial neighborhoods impossible to get to. Like the "37 Arts" theatre out by the Hudson, at least a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station and any subway stop. (I can even get to BAM quicker. On a good day, at least.) No wonder the hip new, and Obie-winning, musical "In the Heights" can barely fill its less-than-500 seats. Imagine what business it would do in Brooklyn.

Taylor takes the interesting step of asking Andre Bishop if he would ever put the proposed new Lincoln Center Theatre 3rd Space in Brooklyn. Aside from logistics, he insists:
"I refuse to believe — call me hopeless and naive — that all the youthful action is now taking place outside of Manhattan. I feel we can infuse new energy right here in Manhattan, even in marble-walled Lincoln Center."
But them marble walls may just be the problem, Andre. Some metaphors do write themselves.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, playgoer. I'm in 99% agreement with you, but I'm suspcious of your comments re: IN THE HEIGHTS. Is part of Brooklyn's appeal (and BAM specifically) the "event" nature of their presentations? The longest runs at BAM are 4 weeks, ditto St Ann's, and TFNA (make that 6 weeks, but still, usually "events"). I don't know if Brooklyn is truly the next frontier for commercial, sit-down runs.

Playgoer said...

Yes, good point about the sit-down/commercial factor. Hadn't really thought that part through.

I were that show, I'd like to think I'd rather be in, say, Williamsburg than 10th and 37th. But then again, you probably couldn't get away with ticket prices north of $30/40 there.