By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
It used to happen only at matinees and only in the largest theaters. Now the scene is the same everywhere and anytime, opening nights included: You take a seat and glance around to find yourself one of the youngest people in the house. If you are a person who remembers where he was when RFK — or even JFK — was assassinated, you’ll feel vaguely flattered. Another look confirms that, except for the kid in the light booth, you are the youngest person here. The flattery gives way to a scary calculus: If you took away all the friends of the cast and removed all the audience members over 50 years old — or even only those over 60 — the place would suddenly be the biggest broom closet in Los Angeles.
Attending the theater has never been a preoccupation of American youth — even among young people who work in theater. Tickets are more expensive than those for movies, and, unlike films, plays tend to be written by older authors. Conventional wisdom has always held that as people (and their bank accounts) mature, they return to the theater they once encountered as children or in their professional salad days — hungry now to listen to playwrights whose experiences and insights they can understand.
The problem is that fewer and fewer people have had any encounter with live theater in high school or college, and today’s reigning playwrights always seem to be a generation or two older than the 30-somethings who traditionally form the youngest tier of theatergoing audiences. The average age of the 2005 Tony Award nominees for play writing was a little over 62, whereas the 1975 nominees averaged about 49. Even for the hipper Obie Awards, which tend to celebrate younger artists, last year’s play-writing nominees averaged more than 49 years old, while 30 years ago they averaged 35.5.
More fundamentally, such electronic diversions and entertainments as the Internet, iPods and other MP3 devices, along with increasingly sophisticated video-gaming technology, are transforming the relationship between “product” and audience. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, stars remain big while it’s the pictures — or at least, the screens — that get smaller. Even as the Mark Taper Forum sells out performances of The Cherry Orchard, the very nature of “audience” is changing from a collective of spectators who passively witness someone else’s work to a far less definable mass of individuals who cannot sit still but feel the impulse to interact with what they are experiencing. Theater’s only solace is that it is not alone in this tectonically changing landscape, as audiences for classical music, jazz, church sermons, and even movies and network TV have continued to shrink.
While every theater is aware of these shifts, administrative responses range from intense proactive planning to resigned shrugs. In the former category is Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group, which comprises the Ahmanson Theater and Mark Taper Forum. Jim Royce, who heads CTG’s marketing-and-communications department, is continually constructing models to game changing trends and demographics.
“Any theater that’s been around 10 or 20 years is going to see a segment of its base get older,” Royce says. “The good news is that the baby-boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964, and which just turned 60 this year — is more affluent and better educated than previous ones. They’re healthier and living longer.”
Royce works with a database of 300,000 people who have attended shows at the Ahmanson or Taper. He says that on average 20 percent of his theaters’ audience is attending them for the first time — a figure that fluctuates wildly according to the marquee.
Those figures plainly suggest how important youth-oriented shows are. Last summer, when I first learned that the gay Celebration Theater’s season featured a show called Judy Garland at the Stonewall Inn, I thought, Lots of luck selling that to anyone under 40. Michael Matthews, the theater’s young artistic director, later admitted that the show, while popular, drew almost no one in their 20s or 30s.
“I don’t think that Judy Garland at the Stonewall Inn appeals to 20- to 30-year-olds,” Matthews says in retrospect. “I’m very conscious about the age bracket — we will definitely tailor our next season.”
The dilemma that Matthews (who estimates the bulk of his audience at between 35 and 60 years old) and other artistic directors face is just how to tailor a season. If a theater adds too much young blood, it risks accusations of pandering and the loss of its older base. But even spreading out age-oriented shows throughout a season has its dangers. Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players, whose audience is 60 percent Asian, recalls the time his company papered Koreatown nightclubs with fliers for a play by a young Korean-American playwright, offering $10 admissions.
“The 20-somethings liked it, but we weren’t consistent,” Dang says, noting that the next play on East West’s bill was aimed at an older audience and all the 20-somethings vanished from the theater. He estimates that his theater’s audience ranges in age between 46 and 66, with most falling in their late 40s or early 50s. He finds that traditional subscriptions are increasingly becoming a hard sell.
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