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“Hardly anyone wants to sample the full diversity of our season,” he says. “People would rather pay full price for tickets they can buy exactly when they want to, rather than get 20 percent off through subscription discounts.”
To that end, the Victory, like the Taper and the Ahmanson, offers theatergoers the option of buying blocks of tickets that can be used for any shows within a year’s time, rather than for specific seasons. This lets younger people choose shows more to their liking while allowing for their aversion to long-term commitments.
Gobetti and Ormeny’s two theaters have occupied a corner along Victory Boulevard since 1979. The smaller Little Victory recently opened Craig Wright’s play Orange Flower Water. The four-character drama, about marital infidelity in a rural Minnesota town, appealed to a late 30s–early 40s crowd, although the premiere’s audience looked like the kind of age cross section that most theaters pray for. Gobetti and Ormeny’s marketing smarts can be attributed to much research and the tireless sending of e-mail and snail-mail messages to 20,000 people who have attended the theater at some point. Computerization has been key, especially when the slightest hitch in the delivery of the theater’s nonprofit-postage mailers can result in disaster. The couple has also benefited by participating in a three-year study of the theater’s marketing strategies conducted by USC’s Marshall School of Business.
“We discovered we have a huge audience that comes in from Brentwood,” Ormeny says. “The survey told us that many people come from further away to our theater. It said we have the same net as the Taper.”
Another discovery was that the average Victory theatergoer needed to be contacted through e-mail and fliers three times before he or she attended a play — a hint of how many hoops small theaters must jump through to entice patrons.
Few theater companies have remained as brattishly en garde as the Actors’ Gang, founded by Tim Robbins and some fellow UCLA theater students in 1981. Yet, inevitably, as the company ages, so does its core audience. Joel Kimmel, the company’s development director, says that its subscribers mostly range between late 40s and early 50s, although the theater’s general audience begins in earnest at about 35.
The trick, says managing director Greg Reiner, is to continually reach out to younger audiences.
“We have student matinees, a Pay What You Can night once a week,” Reiner says, “and a very strong community educational program that runs from elementary school through high school. We did Tartuffe last year and had high school kids from John Burroughs who kept coming back — some became interns. What brought them back was the show’s style and its accessibility.”
The Taper and Ahmanson’s Royce says it’s his job to get the first-time theatergoer, whom he’ll track for three years, to return within 18 months.
“It’s considered good if I can get them to come back three times,” Royce says. “At that point they will consider a subscription. If you can get them to become a first-time subscriber, they’ll be seeing four to five shows a year. If I can get them to subscribe four years in a row, the chance of getting them for life is 90 percent.”
Ultimately, though, just how long a theater can remain afloat, let alone young, depends on how much theater remains vital for a substantial section of upcoming generations. Theater is a largely white domain in a country that is becoming increasingly less white. Against this backdrop, cultivating young audiences becomes a life-and-death matter.
Royce’s research tells him that people in their 20s and younger make “cohort” decisions by peer consensus: On Friday night, the choosing of entertainment tends to be a group effort among friends and will most likely involve clubs, bars, concerts or other crowd venues. “Let’s go see The Kentucky Cycle” is not a likely suggestion.
“Spontaneity in that cohort doesn’t favor theater,” says Royce, who claims that as people reach their 30s, the decision process becomes more individual, and the choices more personal and intellectual.
“You become much more independent as you get older,” he says.
And yet, while it wouldn’t seem unusual for a maturing person to begin reading more or to become more reflective, it doesn’t seem likely that a person with little or no exposure to theater will one day awake with the urge to explore Euripides, Beckett or Mamet.
“Theater just isn’t part of our culture and never has been,” says Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey Theater Ensemble, who freely admits his 37-year-old company is “largely older.”
“People used to call me up and ask for 20s,” recalls Sossi about requests for young talent when he began his theater. “I’d say, ‘No problem.’ When they’d ask for 60-year-olds, I’d say, ‘I can’t help you there.’ Now it’s the opposite.”
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