So I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the age old problem of shrinking audiences. And so I've started asking a few people I know who don't go to see theatre why they don't go see theatre.
Let me preface this with two things. One, this is totally anecdotal and not scientific and second by saying that a panacea that's often offered to this and many other problems is improved arts education. The people I'm talking to, however have had plenty good arts education. That's not the issue. These are the audiences that institutions often talk about desiring so badly- young, well educated, disposable income etc. So what gives? Here are the three responses I get most often:
(1) It's too expensive.
(2) It's inconvenient / aggravating in some way (i.e. uncomfortable seats).
(3) It's for old people.
And you know what? All three of these are for the most part objectively true. Theatre is very expensive, inconvenient and in terms of who is going to see it and who many season choices are programmed for, it's for old people.
Now, one thing that I know Playgoer frequently brings up when ticket prices are discussed is that young people with disposable income will blow $50-$100 on all sorts of things, from new video games to rock concerts to sporting events to Deluxe DVD Sets. And this is true, if they didn't have the money to do such things, theaters probably wouldn't desire them so much as audiences. Here's the rub: Think about how much you tend to know about a band before you go to see them in concert (assuming you're spending at least $20.00 on the ticket). You probably have at least a few songs by them on your iPOD, you might've read a review of a live show of there's on Pitchfork or Brooklyn Vegan; heck, before buying their album you probably went to their MySpace page to preview it (or you have an emusic account which is really built to enable risk taking and sampling of bands). You're probably not going to plunk down $100 for a ticket to a sporting event for a team you know nothing about, and you're probably not going to get the boxed set of all eight seasons of Buffy unless you've already seen most of them.
So... yes. people tend to be conservative when it comes to spending large quantities of money on things. The issue is not that theatre is too expensive w/r/t other forms of art and entertainment but that it is too expensive for people to take risks on their viewing choices and that for people who don't go to watch theatre in general all theatre is a risk. Not only that, but due to the (well intentioned but misguided) attempt to market theatre as something that's "good for you", the people who don't to see theatre tend to feel defensive and resentful about all of this, and I don't really think that something you're feeling defensive/resentful towards is something you also want to spend $50 on.
So what about inconvenience and old people? Well, first off, I don't want to talk about it like the fact that old people see theatre is something to be "fixed". We have enough problems as it is without alienating people who love theatre by talking about them like they're a disease. The problem is not that older people go see theatre, the problem is the perception (at times grounded in reality) that no one else does. I think this is something for both marketing departments and artistic directors to consider. I mean... as Donna Walker Kuhn would say, you can't expect someone to come see a play if you're not doing anything to appeal to them.
And then we get to inconvenience, uncomfortable seats etc. and so forth, something I've wracked my brains about and know not what to do with. You can't do eight shows a day in five theaters simultaneously like you can with a movie. You can't beam theatre into a million homes (a televised broadcast of play is not a play anymore).
Someone's gonna figure this out. That someone'll be the 21st century's Joe Papp.