The Playgoer: That Elusive Young Audience

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

That Elusive Young Audience

Isaac Butler had a terrific and very important post the other day using a friend of his as a case study in a very vexing phenomenon: the highly educated, culturally curious, financially able population of young folk that just don't care about theatre.

Isaac's subject is "Zack," a Boston resident. There's some debate among Isaac's readers whether Boston makes for a good "sample." I say yes. Even though the volume of theatre is not the same as NYC, there certainly is much serious professional and fringe activity there, plus that perfect demographic of culturally aware, and employed, college grads.

Isaac takes away three general points/lessons from his interview of Zack:

1) Media coverage matters:

Zack told me first that theater doesn't really penetrate his consciousness. Now, Zack lives in Boston, not New York, but Boston has a fairly vibrant theater scene. He said he doesn't really hear about plays that appeal to him. Movies and television invade his space constantly through the Hollywood Hype Machine (print and TV ads, for example, the rumor mill &c.) and such mechanisms don't exist for theater. It's not just about Masscult creating desire (as advertising often does) it's just on some level the information that a show he might be interested in never reaches him in the first place.

2) The liveness of theatre is actually a problem.
There's something about watching the living 3-dimensional person, instead of a flickering 2-dimensional image that is uncomfortable and difficult. Especially in watching them pretend to be someone else with mixed results.

3) Ticket price is not necessarily the problem.
He said, "Well, high ticket price would explain why I don't go the theater more often, but I'm willing to plunk down $40-60 for the occasional Beck concert. So why not plunk it down for the occasional play? If plays were cheaper, I'd still have the other problem of not really knowing they were happenning."

I must say these all confirm feelings I've had for quite a while. But I've yet to try to collect the kind of evidence that would show this. So bravo to Isaac for taking the first step, even if it is a sample of one. A project I have in mind would be to do some wider focus- grouping of college grads 22-40, living in NYC who regularly subscribe/go to other arts events, but not theatre.

Isaac's point #2--that not everyone likes the liveness of theatre--reminded me of something I had written up myself in a journal entry a few years ago. So I'll share it here in its raw form, just to help further the conversation perhaps. It's from summer, 2003--as the references to "Long Day's Journey" and the Playwrights Horizons premiere of "I Am My Own Wife" attest.
New York is crawling—as it ever has been—with Ivy-educated, super cultured, and moneyed elitists who used to form the backbone of the theatre audience. (The types that used to constitute that white-tie-and-tails opening night crowd one sees in screwball comedies, or—perfect example—"Dinner at Eight.") Their taste in novels, food, and film is nothing less than the top-bracket, “art-house”, and most expensive marketing can devise. And yet—ask them what was the last play they went to? They’ll probably say “Aida” or “The Lion King.” Or maybe, for the truly adventurous, “Long Days Journey.”

It all comes down to—are the days past when an average cultural elitist will pick up The New York Times one day, read a rave review of some little drama by someone never heard of, starring unknown actors, and think “Hm, maybe I’ll go check this out.” That’s all I’m asking. It’s unrealistic to wait for “the masses” to just start coming out to the theatre expecting the unexpected just for the love of it. My question is more basic: why does the intended target audience still ignore the signposts of its own culture industry? Again, only when that industry really drums it in with a unified all-fronts campaign that amasses not just critics, but gossip columnists, features editors, radio, tv, and fashion (again, a la “Long Days Journey”) will the latent, sleeping theatre audience arouse and follow its master. Otherwise, the elite now pleads total ignorance of the theatre scene. They go to “Aida” because they’ve heard of it—seen it blazoned across buses, heard ads on pop radio. You ask them about the new hit play at Atlantic and they don’t know it exists.

So—why doesn’t Joe Ivy feel motivated enough to drop, say, $30 on some Off-Broadway “hit” like “I Am My Own Wife” after reading his New York Times one morning telling him how amazing it is. (Ok, Bruce Weber didn’t quite do that in that case, but it will have to do for now.) (Note how this play still sold out and may not have needed Joe Ivy, sustaining on the patronage of theatre people alone. So the crisis I’m talking about is not solely financial. The hermetic “theatre people” audience CAN sustain many plays. But the need for the broader elitist market is necessary for other, more long term cultural reasons, I would argue…)
Hmm. Did the eventual success of "Wife" on Broadway prove me wrong in this particular case?

Joe Ivy doesn’t get on the phone (or even online!) after reading that review to buy tickets because he just doesn’t—at heart—like going to theatre. It’s not just that for twenty bucks less he could go to a movie. (He’ll gladly spend that $20 on a burger, a CD, or sports paraphanalia.) (“He” is a misleading pronoun, of course. “She” would be even more interesting—but raises its own questions—since as marketers will tell you educated women are even more the target audience for cultural elite product. I have no evidence, but I can only imagine—more women go to foreign films, subscribe to the New Yorker, attend classical music or dance… I’m sure more go to the theatre as a whole, because you’ll see them go together more often than men in groups…And yet young yuppie women aren’t saving the theatre either, due to the same syndrome, I believe. So read on!)

Theatre can’t beat the movies for the “impulse buy” because people just don’t get the same experience. Young people today (under 40, say) like the movie going experience more than the theatre equivalent. Yes, there’s the popcorn & soda. Yes, there’s the going-as-you-are and putting your sneakered foot up on the seat in front of you. But, if that were the only problem, the solution would be so easy! Sell beer in the aisles, incentivize grungy dress with ticket discounts (or encourage it with slacker ushers), and charge $10. I guarantee if you started a theatre company like that you’d have a flash-in-the-pan 2-week pr sensation that would produce nothing but improv comedy. No one would want to perform (or see!) Ibsen under these conditions.

OK, so why do we prefer the moviegoing experience? If not just for the physical comfort and release from societal codes of behavior. Think of why we go to the ovies. What do we really mean when we say, to our friends, or our other, at a random dull moment, “Hey, let’s go to the movies!” Or, alone, in our room, trying to find a reason to get out of bed, “Maybe I’ll go to a movie or something.” Interesting, and important, that we all can have the impulse to “go to the movies” regardless of the content of the movie itself. It’s the experience we want. Implicitly, we are willing to put up with a certain amount of mediocrity of product, provided it gives us The Moviegoing Experience—sitting in the dark, alone (even if among others) watching projected images of life (preferably featuring known faces and/or viscerally stimulating situations) on a screen. When we bemoan the lack of interest in the theatre, we acknowledge “our” inability to compete with this.

People—even Joe Ivy people—don’t “impulse buy” the theatre because it implies too many limits. Not just “I have to dress up” or “I can’t bring snacks in”. It carries too many social pressures. Somehow, I sense, we are less aware of a crowded audience of anonymous moviegoers than even the sparsest of Theatre Patrons. (Maybe a
vestige of the great theatregoing tradition of “going to be seen”?) More than the perceived pressure imposed by those around you, though, is the confrontation with the real-life people on stage! Yes, the very immediacy, the thrill of the actors in the room with you, which good theatre people like myself crave and what it’s supposed to be all about—that may just be the turn off for some. “How can I sit back in my t-shirt munching munchies with this woman crying right in front of me!” It’s funny how so many theatre hipsters preach more “audience participation” as the cure for all ills—when even the 4th wall implies too much participation for most young urban bourgeois I know…

(Ask the educated elite, ages 20-35 what they think of “theatre” and I guarantee the following phrases will surface—“Why do they have to talk like that?” “It’s so phony” “The seats are so small” “All those old people in the audience”)

Could this be the real lasting impact of television on the theatre? Not the shrinking of content or mumbling of acting, but the inducing of expectations of passive entertainment. Remember, the audiences born after 1950 were the first to be raised on TV. Their parents may have watched, and even went to the movies often, but still had an appetite for theatre. So at least they still took their children in the
50’s and 60’s and helped form some habits that still last. But would everyone agree (whose business it is to know) that 50 is exactly the age of the crisis? That the audience numbers really fall off below 50? And, exponentially, below 30? (the generation raised by the first tv-generation.) As old fashioned as it sounds, TV has spoiled us by providing drama-entertainment at our convenience, enabling total
passivity. I sense moviegoing, too, must have changed after the
50’s. Just look at the demise of the Movie Palaces and the rise of the

The simple fact we have to absorb—and get past?—is that for the over-50 generation, the theatre “impulse buy” was possible… and frequent! Why? Because those people liked going to the theatre. They liked, and still like, The Theatre Going Experience—just the way we like the moviegoing experience. Thank god for the senior citizens, because only those who like the theatergoing experience that much would take a chance on unheard of plays and actors. As any regional theatre or New York non-profit will tell you—only senior citizens become “subscribers.”


Contrapositive said...

I'll throw a related thought into the mix, also based on zero actual research:

My hunch is that at least a subset of the people in the demographic you're discussing have developed the firm view, consciously or not, that they're unlikely to encounter anything in live theatre that has any relevance to their lives.

They've seen bad high school musicals and Neil Simon productions and believe, at least at some gut level, that that's pretty much all live theatre has to offer.

Broadway ad campaigns (by and large) only reinforce the impresion that theatre is all about fluff and spectacle. And off-Broadway never makes it onto the radar of these people--or if it does, they assume it's more of the same.

Just a theory.

But whatever the answer is, it does seem like a serious problem.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe the quick-cutting pace of music videos, the multi-tasking that electronics enable, the jumping among open windows on a computer, and they myriad other ways we function nowadays has made the theatrical form moribund. I'm not calling for more technology in theater -- please don't misunderstand. And I happen to have abiding affection for narrative. But -- just a hypothesis -- maybe there's something about the linear way most theater proceeds (even "non-linear" theater -- ie, non-narrative or "theater of images" or "experimental theater") that just doens't engage today's brains. Maybe young people perceive theater as plodding too slowly in a single direction. I'm not saying I think it does that -- I think the good stuff is multivalent and, as I said, I love a good yarn. But I do think the ways our brains function is actually changing and that woudl have an effect on the kind of art we're drawn to.

Anonymous said...

I think it's because theatre comes across as something very feminine.
What's the last play that was like a football game...a video game...these cultured guys don't go to the ballet either. Yes ofcourse they'll go to a rock concert. It's a concert with chicks (I'm using a bit more machismo I know)!

So, if he(Isaac) is doing this research and there is a concern, how about looking at the play? Did Zack really go to "AIDA" I doubt it. Would Zack go see a Hans Christensen adaptation well ofcourse because Zack is Isaacs friend, but would another football, computer playing, rock concert going kinda guy go? Sadly, I have my doubts. The only play I can think of is "Glengarry Glen Ross" Why? It's a guy thing. It's hip. It's more visceral. It's men staking out there territory. It's hormones.
Ok, I gotta go take a shower now.

Anonymous said...

I think to attract a younger audience, the theatre should give out free ecstasy to anyone under 30 and allow them to watch videos on their iPods during the performance. This is a wonderful way of attracting the elusive youth audience.

Contrapositive said...

I don't think the problem can be attributed to shrinking attention spans and multi-tasking--or at least not the entire problem.

If even a small percentage of under-35 cinephiles were occasional theatregoers, it would be a huge improvement.

There are probably tens of thousands of twentysomething film geeks out there who eagerly anticipate the new Todd Solondz movie (or whatever) but wouldn't even consider checking out a well-reviewed new play.

The problem is deeper than technology, lifestyle trends, etc.

Anonymous said...

Or, it could be that most theatre being made right now just doesn't connect with younger audiences - and here is the excpetion that proves the rule - I went back to see AVENUE Q on Saturday night and was stunned to be (once again) at age 46, the oldest person in the ORCHESTRA!!! More telling, the conversation in the theatre during internission (besides everyone talking about how cool the show is) had more to do with Zach Braff than Brian Stokes Mitchell

Make of this what you will but we all know there are no discounts on Saturday nite at AVENUE Q - so those are $100 tickets going to hundreds of 'young audiences'

Anonymous said...

Oh bullshit at 46 you were the "oldest" person in the Avenue Q orchrestra.

Anonymous said...

drop by some Saturday night - it's also the only show on Broadway that doesn't ask you to unwrap your candy, adjust your hearing aids and remind you to turn off your cell phones - and Gary can't you just look out into the audience and see those young faces

Anonymous said...

Drama is not sports -- sports have no pre-determined outcome, a play does. Sports are about competition, not truth.

Actors pretend. That is what they do.

A fake youth culture built on a spurious idea of authenticity isn't the way for the theatre to go.

"Nobody wants to be lied to, and nobody wants to be manipulated."

This is not true if you look at the kinds of music and movies youth culture flocks to.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your theory of acting and I think it's eloquently stated -- but I don't think it'll get voters to the polls, as it were.

Pornography has the ultimate "pre-determined outcome" and it is the biggest entertainment industry on the face of the planet. And half the time, even though the people are fucking, it seems faker than fake.

People want fantasy and escapism. The theatre is committed to truth, that's why people don't go, will never go. Unless it's Phantom et al.

Playgoer said...

Fascinating comments so far. Thanks to all. I will respond at further length to some of these in a separate post. did the cast of Diff'rent Strokes find its way here?

Anonymous said...

Gary Coleman is in AVENUE Q and I guess Conrad showed up to lend support...