The Playgoer: New NEA Report

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

New NEA Report

The NEA just released a new study of US arts audiences, and the news is pretty much the usual "audiences getting grayer"/"income going down" variety. But I find many of the theatre-related findings surprisingly positive--only in that they show things not getting that much worse yet than they've been the last two decades.

(Full 16-page report is downloadable for free. Or read NEA's quick summary. Note that survey focused on the period May 2007-May 2008. So that's just before the recession really set in.)

For instance:

-Good News/Bad News: As the above graph illustrates, only 20% of Americans went at least once to the theatre in the twelve months before May, 2008. But we sure beat ballet and opera! In fact we're second only to museums in overall "arts attendance."

-Contrary to the general impression, this figure has actually not changed much in the last 25 years. Dividing all their theatre stats (probably wisely) between musicals and plays, NEA looks back at previous surveys going back to 1982 survey and finds that 18% of the population back then reported going to at least one musical (compared with 16% in '08) and only 12%, even back then, to a play (compared with 9.4% now). The percentages say that's a 10% decline in musical attendance and, yes, 20% for plays, but still, when you look at the absolute numbers, it hasn't gotten much worse.

-Age: NEA breaks down these attendance figures by age-group and finds similar modest decline/holding patterns across the board. But wouldn't ya know it the steepest decline is among middle aged folks (45-54) going to plays! From 15.2% in 1982 to only 8.7%. That's almost half. But that was back in '08 and perhaps God of Carnage has redressed that now singlehandedly. (Completely sold out after the Tonys, btw.)

As for how old the audience is NEA looks at "medians" instead of "averages," which, as your middle school math teacher told you, is not the same thing. It's nice to learn that the median theatre attendee back in '82 was just 39. (That is, still in their thirties!) Now it's 45-47, for musicals and plays, respectively. Still younger than we'd guess based on what we hear. However, remember that "median" means just as many in the group below that number as above. (Right, Mr. Hertz?) So, seems to me, we don't necessarily have a healthy bunch of fortysomethings in our theatres. That number could just as well result from 50% senior citizens, 25% tweens and 25% toddlers, right? (Which certainly must be the forumla keeping The Little Mermaid going, I imagine.)

-Class: NEA measures the class makeup of the audience basically by tracking for "Education." Which leads to neatly predictable graphs like this, for overall arts attendance:

But breaking the numbers down more specifically reveals at least one more surprising (and disturbing) trend: a real decline over the years in theatre attendance by the entire "college educated" demographic as a whole. (Including advanced degrees.) In other words: our core demographic, supposedly.

In 1982 40.5% of US college grads attended at least a musical, 30% a play. By the '07-'08 season that was almost down to 32% for musicals (a 20% falloff) and 20% for plays (basically one-third lower). Not. Good. News.

Conclusion? Well here's a radical one: maybe we shouldn't consider upper-class highly-educated our core audience anymore? Problem is, though, they're who tickets are priced for. At the current ticket values, they're the only ones who can afford theatre. And they not coming as much anymore. So...who's got a new business model?

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