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December 12, 2008

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RLewis

"I'd argue, for example, it's not just that young people (or ethnic minorities) feel the work is strange, elitist, and unwelcoming, it's that the work is frequently strange, elitist and unwelcoming to young people and/or ethnic minorities."

You say that like it's a bad thing. Don't some works reach their artistic potential by employing these very aesthetics? I hope you're not saying that the state would be better off, if we were all doing tya.

isaac

I don't think youth is what is meant by young audiences in the study. I'm pretty sure they're talking about the nebulous group
"young audiences" that roughly means "people under 45". It's contrasted in the studies with the existing audience for the arts, which is getting older and older and not being replaced. That was the meaning I was using, anyway.

RLewis

Still, I think that some works are relevant and deserving production that do not cowtow to those under 30 (45 is a bit questionable) - some works require a particuliar history from its audience to better connect, and I don't think that's all wrong. Just as there are lots of works that leave those over 45 cold. I think more and better variety is more like something that should be a goal.

But the thing that really irks me is the old "audiences are getting older" saw. It's often said as if only old people are getting older, and that young people don't age. Aren't we heading into a senior boomer age, so that in fact, soon we should have more old people than ever, and that's a big potential audience base? Makes me wonder what facts they/you're basing the "not being replaced" claim.

Now, maybe new, old people aren't coming to the theater the way the old, old people did, but I don't hear folks saying that - and that's something that can be addressed in a growth model thingy.

Parabasis

Hey RL,

While I agree with some of what you're saying here. We know from the recent NEA studies amongst others that audiences for plays are declining. It's not a thing plucked out of thin air. Audiences are getting older and their getting less not more numerous. I would think we can all agree that at least the latter part of that is a problem.

RLewis

Okay IB, I was hoping to read the NEA study over the holidays, but your using its information is forcing me to read and dissect ahead of schedule. While the study is not plucked, you pluck out that play attendance is in decline without plucking out that musical theater attendance is up – that’s more numerous, not less. Why is that, ya think? First, I’d point out that the study doesn’t even count theater groups with budgets under $25,000 annually (hundreds, if not thousands, more of us), and I’d bet most of those companies produce plays, not more expensive musicals, so maybe the audience for plays didn’t decline; they just shifted from regional theaters to local theaters. We don't know.

Next, I’d point you to Key Finding #1, which states that this info’ comes from theater growth doubling among annual budgets over $75,000. Maybe this doubling of higher financed theaters comes from the type of work they produce – musicals cost more to do than plays. And with more and more Bways shows coming from the Regionals, maybe this is a sign that they are just putting on more musicals than plays, hoping for a hit to transfer. So, I just can’t see anything in the study you reference that disproves a reason for play audience decline being just fewer opportunities. If the Regionals don’t do as many plays, and do musicals instead, then audiences for plays have no place to go but down.

I’m sure you know that you don’t have to pluck figures from the air to make them say what you want. But if, if, if you’re correct that audiences are getting older and fewer, when in fact US population is getting a whole new slew of old people, then that’s a problem we can positively address; but not by targeting those who’s maturity level isn’t ready for theater yet, and only if we’re right about what the numbers tell us.

isaac

Hey RL<

I don't actually think I'm cherry picking numbers, although I think I should've explained this a bit better.

I consider both numbers (musicals and plays) a decline. The growth in musical audiences is still a decline, because it declined as a share *of overall population.* And no, I'm not employing any weird trickery here, this is pretty standard. When the economy "adds" 90,000 jobs, it's frequently talked about *as a loss* because the economy has to add between 120K-150K jobs a quarter to keep up with population growth. Similarly, a growth in attendance that doesn't keep pace with population growth is a decline, especially considering the growth in the *number of companies*.

There are some flaws with the NEA study. We don't know if audiences declined in one region while the number of theaters and audience grew in another. Chicago could have a banner year whilst Pittsburgh had a terrible one, or whatever. SO yes, it's problematic. But what they're saying matches a lot of first hand accounts of people I've talked to.

I mentioned this little disagreement we're having to marketing director friend, and she said: "Oh, this is what the real issue is. Focus group after focus group'll tell ya that Boomers don't go to the theatre. Not like their parents did, anyway. So as they retire and the generations before them die out, that sector of the audience isn't actually being replaced. That's one of the reasons there's so much of emphasis on "under-35"s".... if we can hook them we'll have audiences for a long time to come."

Now obviously she didn't show me her focus group data, but I've heard that a couple of places. In fact, I attended a seminar on "How To Get Boomers To Go To Your Theatre" at a convention once that was by far the most depressing couple of hours outside of Schindler's List I've ever experienced.

My point was simply this, and I think it's one that you may agree with... *If* you want to attract certain demographics to go to the theatre, it's broader than a marketing problem. You have to do work they might want to come see in the first place. And believe me, as someone who has to read about the seasons of a lot of regional theaters every other month for a writing job I have... that's not the work that's being done.

RLewis

IB, first please know that I always respect your theater opinions and really do appreciate your having this discussion with me. While I do not consider it a "disagreement", I'm only sorry that we couldn't get more folks into these important "Close Reading"s.

I'm always for both more and varied approachs to the arts, and don't want everyone going my way; but in my almost 30 yrs of doing this, the discussion of How Do We Get the Kids? has been laborously perennial. I can't say I've seen any stab at 'em that has worked, and the NEA study seems to bare this out.

As I believe that the theater is a place of Ideas, and that the younger audiences are less likely to be into thinking more deeply, the results of getting them young seems almost futile... almost. And since this is no longer a new approach, perhaps competing for Boomers' newly free time and disposable income seems - to me - easier than battling Xboxes, myspaces, ipods, etc, and more like thinking outside the box.

Looking forward to Part III. Thanks.

Parabasis

Hey RL,

I think you bring up some interesting and challenging points, and in fact, it'd be worth exploring in a "what's so great about young audiences" kind of a post!

Let me ask you: why do you think these efforts to get younger butts in seats seem so perenially doomed?

RLewis

"Let me ask you: why do you think these efforts to get younger butts in seats seem so perenially doomed?"

Well, cuz it's not a new concept any longer, and I don't see anyone siting where it has worked gangbusters.

I'm all for arts-in-ed', and think that exposure is important. Some will take to it; some will not; some will get it later. We should try everything! But I do believe that the kind of introspection, reflection, and conceptual thinking that theater offers often matters more the closer we are to the grave. Kids can be taught the meaning of symbolism, metaphor, allegory, etc, and should be, but the true value of these theater concepts comes more and more with age.

Kids go to the theater to be entertained, not enlightened; and not only is there greater competition for our entertainment dollar today, but most of the new competitors (video games, internet, ipods, etc) are specifically targeted to those young 'uns.

So, I'm all for getting in the younger crowds' faces, but why put so many eggs in their basket when we're gauranteed a new and bigger generation of mature audiences that I think is a much easier target?

Ian David Moss

See: http://createquity.blogspot.com/2009/01/response-to-isaac-butlers-close-reading.html

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