L.A. Theater 2006: The Thinning Gray Line

The mirror has two faces: Alan Mandell, left; Steve Coombs. (Photo by Drew Reynolds)

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.

“When John Leguizamo came here [with Sexaholic], the figure jumped to 45 percent — the highest it’s been,” Royce says of the theaters’ first-timers. “The lowest was Elaine Stritch, with 7 percent.”

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.

“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.”

“People don’t want subscriptions,” agrees Maria Gobetti, who, with husband and partner Tom Ormeny, runs Burbank’s Victory Theater Center. “They don’t want to be tied to a schedule.”

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.”

In fact, very much like the Taper’s, the Odyssey’s subscription base has become nearly synonymous with “aging audience.” The difference, though, is that Sossi’s graying patrons are always eager to confront new and often controversial work, like David Gieselmann’s Mr. Kolpert, which recently featured full-frontal, blood-splattered nudity. Blue-haired does not always mean blue-nosed.

Sossi says that for years, he and his Odyssey colleagues tried to figure out ways to coax young people into their theater, offering ticket discounts and student-outreach programs. Finally, he says, they realized it wasn’t a matter of money or even of exposing students to the stage.

“The student category is a false category,” Sossi says. “Let’s face it, kids want to rebel and don’t want to do something their school says they’re supposed to. Among young people, theater is considered a dry thing — it’s not even in the atmosphere.”

Sossi points to some Odyssey strategies ($12 “anytime” tickets available to anyone 25 and under, attempts to create youth “councils” that would advise him on ad designs and what attracts young people to theater) but says that promotion costs keep them from getting too far off the ground. The Victory’s Gobetti and Ormeny echo this complaint, claiming they increasingly find their time and modest resources diverted to audience research and advertising.

Few artistic directors of shoestring-budget theaters are likely to happily embrace the news that their survival depends on creating R&D staffs tasked with tracking shifting audience whims. Far more nebulous and vexing is the question of the changing nature of the 21st-century audience itself. No one interviewed for this article would venture a guess as to what the effects of new entertainment technologies spell for the future, although some noted changes in current audience behavior.

“People are more isolated and don’t feel a need to engage with others,” says East West’s Tim Dang. “During intermissions I see people playing games on their telephones. I like to introduce myself to audience members during intermission and thank them for coming to the theater. Some younger people are taken aback because I’ve approached them and invaded their space.”

Overall, the mood is one of guarded optimism that the downsizing and Netflixing of entertainment will produce a backlash benefiting live theater.

“You’re seeing on one end of the spectrum in the corporate-produced media a trend to make things smaller, individualized, to the size of an iPod screen,” says Greg Reiner of the Actors’ Gang. “Theater has always been about making stories and characters larger to create a communal experience. Actors’ Gang is especially about creating civic dialogue — we raise big topics, we paint on a large canvas.”

In the end, theater's best hope lies in an atavistic need to witness spectacle, large or small, within a group. Those of us who presently find ourselves the “kids” at opening nights may one day wish we weren’t. In time, after all, we could end up becoming the little old ladies crinkling wrapped candy or the dozy gents snoring through soliloquies — and discovering ourselves very alone.?


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