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October 21, 2009


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Here, here!

Paul Rekk

"There is probably a theater company in your area that is succeeding at doing those three things. Produce their next show in your space."

Just to sink that point home: http://www.steppenwolf.org/_pdf/VCI_pressrelease.pdf

Steppenwolf is about to knock this lesson out of the park. In triplicate, no less. Everyone wins.


You are playing my mother fucking jam, man. I've said these things until I was blue in the face. Theaters need to change their actual programming to attract a younger audience, not just advertise the same old dusty shit with an edgier font.


@Paul Rekk

Yes, yes, yes! That Joy meads is one smart cookie. Also, I heart Pavement Group. They developed MilkMilkLemonade first. David Perez is going to do awesome things, I'm certain of it.


Yes, yes, and yes. However:

In response to the "Do you just want their money?" question...No theater wants young people for their money, because young people have none. What they want is an audience that isn't going to die soon, or that, say, won't be offended by the cursing and sexuality onstage. Yes, there are some cases in which this does not apply - there was a sea of gray heads at PIED PIPERS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE, all of whom laughed when three actors entered naked (one with an erection). If more older audiences were like that, maybe we wouldn't keep having this discussion. But when I'm the youngest person in the audience, I'm usually alone in my laughter, and not just at boner jokes. The best audiences I've ever seen have actually been high school students. Not wealthy, entitled subscribers who've followed your theater for twenty-five years. And I know I'm not alone in this observation. THAT'S why theaters want young people.


Hey IB, while I respect all that you do with this blog and am happy to see you getting back to more theater (love the critic posts), I have to say that I really disagree with you on this, and I'll be okay if I'm the only one. I’ve disagreed with others before who’ve said the same thing as you here, so it may not be new for me to be the one thinking outside the box on this.

Unfortunately, I think I know the #1 best way to attract today’s young folks to see more theater: wait 10 years for them to grow up!

Seriously, young people don’t want to see others in the spotlight. The majority want to see THEMSELVES in the spotlight. That’s why I think all arts-in-ed should be participatory. Fund arts in schools for young people to Do It, not see it. When they grow up, this will pay bigger dividends, cuz they’ll know more about it and feel more connected to it. (This is what baseball has taught me – I grew up playing Little League, not going to Pro’ games, but I love those Yankees today.)

When you were a kid did you really want to watch grown-ups come to your school and act like animals or trains? Well, maybe you did, but I couldn’t sit still that long. I got in trouble for running onstage to be the 8th dwarf, cuz I wanted to be in the show, not watching. And this is even more true for teens – it’s THEIR time to shine.

If we do your #1 with artists of that audience’s age, #2 will be even harder to achieve. Maybe if the creators of Coraline were 10 years older they might have created a better show, with better reviews, that would have run longer. But I’ll bet you that if they were 10 years older, they’d be writing about something else. So, you’re only going to get that audience to a better-endeavored show once they’re adults.

Your post acts like these regional theaters aren’t trying this. They are. It’s just not working. I’ll guess it’s because they can’t do your #3 without going broke. We’ve both been to enough panels, tcg conferences, etc. to know that for you to suggest otherwise is what’s not honest. And who are these mystery “succeeding” theater companies you reference, and if they’re so successful, why haven’t they been covered on these blogs (not Chicago, but I don’t hear from many DC blogs)?

This is a decades-old question, and even the young companies I know struggle with it. Hell, it’s hard to just get your young friends to show up. And if you’re answers were correct, something like Passing Strange would still be running on Bway. Hardly. And although young audiences put Rent and Spring Awakening over the top, it was still grown-ups who made up the audience base.

I just gotta reject the premise of your question: with so many new adults (from boomers to pop. growth to those just living longer), why is it that we need to chase young people (with neither the desire nor the disposable income) to attend our shows? Seriously, why?

Come to think of it, maybe you’re right: let’s just stop claiming that we want them. It’s okay with me, too.



We agree on some of this, actually!

I don't think that younger audiences can necessarily sustain these shows or institutions. i think it's an open question. but it's a more interesting question than "How do we get them to go see the same shit we always do?"

Any time the young audience question comes up, it turns intoa question about marketing instead of content.

Paul Rekk

Regarding the money question, it's kind of a trade off: young people don't have the sizable bank accounts, but they do tend to have a bigger percentage of their budget going towards recreation. A younger audience may not be enough to sustain one large institution, but these are the people that may very well go to the theatre on a weekly basis, making them more beneficial to an Off-Broadway/Chicago Storefront type of scene.


I'm totes with you on PG -- David's Lipstick Traces left me in awe (and dancing!). Dog & Pony is also a top notch company focused largely on new work, it would definitely be worth your while to familiarize yourself with them as well, if you aren't already.



I usually like what you have to say, but here I'm a little befuddled by your response. Everybody deserves to see their community reflected in the theater. I'm hesitant to bring it up this way because it's a much larger problem than the one Isaac brings up (like how come there aren't any black folks in this theater?) but there it is.

The theater, if it hopes to ever earn back its relevancy, needs to be more inclusive. That includes audiences of color, queer audiences, poor audiences, and yes... young audiences.

I like all kinds of theater, but one thing I like about plays by young people in particular is that they FEEL young. They feel exciting and bold in a way that a Mamet revival on Broadway does not.

Youngblood, as an example, regularly sells out its monthly brunch show before its even advertised. Why? Because it's fun to watch and hopefully, if the theater ever gives them a chance, these writers will be the writers that you will like in ten years.

Not every theater has to chase young people as you and Isaac both pointed out. But it would be nice if even one did. How esle can we sustain the art form? Besides, not EVERYTHING belongs to the baby boomers, despite how they might feel. :)

Rob Ready

RE: Those three things.

Immediately following the October 9-10 performances of S.H.I.T. Show Deluxe (our sixth full length sketch comedy show in less than a year), PianoFight dove into its inaugural Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors Nights -- kick-ass video here:


The initial idea for the event came in the comments section on a blog posted on Arts Journal about the merits of running a new-audience-building marketing program called Free Night of Theater (piloted in SF by Theatre Bay Area 5 years ago, the event was picked up by TCG and is now national). Being that PianoFight is a for-profit company, we hate the idea that the only way to attract a new, younger audience to theater is to give away the product for free. So after the Exec Dir. of TBA blah blah-ed his way through a meandering pitch in favor of Free Night, I posted in the comments that a better way then giving shit away to get people interested would be to actually run something people were interested in, and would pay for -- specifically, pay more for.

We were sold out both nights at ticket prices $5 higher than normal ($20 instead of $15). The audience had a blast (not quite as much fun as the cast I think), the clean-up wasn't that bad, new people came in through the doors and they all paid good money to do so.

A follow up was posted on Arts Journal the other day, giving a more detailed account of how the event came to be.

So I guess I am tooting my own horn a little here (full disclosure, I am PianoFight's AD), but I'm also pointing out an event that absolutely backs up your point:

(1) Do work they want to see.

(2) Endeavor to do it well

(3) Offer it at a price point they will find reasonable

Thanks for this blog, and discussing these issues in an honest and frank manner.


-Rob Ready

Chloe Whitehorn

Let me just say I totally agree with you. Here's the problem I see though...

"Do work they want to see"
I suppose it depends how young the "young audiences" we're talking about are, but generally speaking younger people aren't being exposed to theatre by their parents/schools as much so even if you are doing theatre they'd want to see, they might not know it.

The shows that seem to routinely get audiences these days are shows with titles that are familiar because they're based on movies. They see the title and think "Cool, a live action version of Evil Dead, and I could get covered in blood. Cool!"

Which brings up another point. Musicals. These draw an audience. I'm still trying to figure out why. I have nothing against musicals but I can't tell you how many times I've heard "yeah, cuz people break out into song and dance in my high school and they all know all the words and dance moves".

Oh. Right. Nevermind.

That's why young audiences like musicals--we're making them into movies lately.

My point is, although the play you produce may be all about subject matter completely relevant and interesting to young people (ie not Agatha Christie) and you might do it brilliantly, unless the title references something from film/tv and involves singing, or Oprah personally invites you on her show to perform a scene, your audiences aren't going to be huge.

I'm calling it here: Next big hit... Twilight the Musical

Rob Ready


We've had a lot of success just by engaging the community we're seeking to attract - namely a younger audience. By producing new work from that community, staging it with people from that community, and employing clever concepts and marketing, that community has responded in droves.

What you said about kids not being exposed to theater in schools as much as they used to is absolutely true. But weirdly enough, we've found that works in our favor as most of our audience hasn't been to a play since they snored through their high school's version of Oklahoma. Point being, I don't think it takes titling your show after a movie to draw in a young crowd.

All that said, Twilight the Musical would sell like effing crazy.



@Josh, thanks. I hoped to be a lil’ “befuddling” without flaming. Just because I’ve heard the if-we-don’t-get-young-folks-to-come-we’ll-die-out rant again and again, since I came to nyc in ’81. It is no longer questioning the paradigm – it IS the paradigm. And I’ll bet that more people see theater now than then.

I agree with a lot of what you wrote, and I am all for inclusiveness, especially minorities and disabled. Queers? Well, isn’t that like bringing coal to New Castle? But seriously, I’m not saying we should shun young audiences, but why are we chasing them decade after decade to no avail? Especially when census numbers are not in their favor? I worry that it’s because we see ourselves and our work as young, so it’s our shot to convince institutions to value our work and produce it.

As for “How esle can we sustain the art form?” I hope I addressed that in my previous response, but I’ll just add that with the students I’m currently teaching, if you don’t get them on their feet doing it soon enough, you lose them. And when we lose them, I fear that they are the ones who grow up to say that theater is boring. I want to fund tons of arts education, but to have students doing theater, not seeing it. I think the benefit will be much stronger in the following decade.

And I love Steppenwolf’s plan linked to above, but let’s see how it plays out. I couldn’t find anything about ticket prices, but guessing at their audience and subscription base, this could just be more shows by young groups for the same old people to see. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

There will always be new old people.

Jack Worthing

Steppenwolf has been doing the VCI for years. It's done through David New and Martha Lavey, not Joy Meads. Good on them anyway, I suppose, but the commitment is a bit half-hearted -- there's little advertising, it's not part of the subscription season, etc. The result is generally that the smaller company's audience follows them to a nicer theatre, and that's all. The (older) subscribers aren't induced to try something new, and there's little cross-pollination to induce younger people into the main season. It's certainly better than most do, but it would be nice to see Steppenwolf directly commit to new artists, rather than doing it third-hand.


@R Lewis, "Queers? Well, isn’t that like bringing coal to New Castle?" Ha ha ha! Touche. We could have a whole political argument about how most gay themed plays aren't queer, but that's a whole other argument and not at all relevant to the point at hand.

Yay! We agree that young people should be educated in theater.

As for Steppenwolf, when I was in Chicago for my workshop of MML I got a tour and happened upon a dusty smaller theater inside the space that nobody ever uses. I wonder if they're doing the shows there? If so, good on 'em.

@Rob Ready, I think your audience and my audience should get together and go bowling.

Jack Worthing

The theatre you speak of @Steppenwolf is only a rehearsal space.


@Jack Worthing

Really? It may be used that way but in general rehearsal spaces aren't theater sized with proscenium stages, right?

Sheesh. You're such a know-it-all.

Dave Charest

@RLewis The following seems pretty spot on to me:

"Seriously, young people don’t want to see others in the spotlight. The majority want to see THEMSELVES in the spotlight. That’s why I think all arts-in-ed should be participatory. Fund arts in schools for young people to Do It, not see it. When they grow up, this will pay bigger dividends, cuz they’ll know more about it and feel more connected to it."

@Isaac Thanks for the post. Your list of 3, the above from RLewis and always nurturing your current audience seems like a winning combo.

Karl Miller

Your point about the narcissism of todays youth is crucial, but it's also the reason a marketing/brand-driven Internet savvy theatre company only gets you so far (as Isaac points out).
As a (nominal, at least) DC blogger who owes most of his livlihood and artistic maturation to the DC community, I can say that most DC theatre people are too busy in the live craft of this live medium to participate in a cybernetic theatre community. For example, the vagaries of te Showcase Code are completely alien to a circuit where most of it's artists are happliy engaged as union AND non-union professionals. Only in NYC, where there is a glut of unionized, agency-represented talent does this issue even exist.
That's just one of the perennial (weekly?) issuesbfrom which we are fundamentally excluded, but if I had to draw a more general distinction it would be this: cyberspace is an attractive venue for self promotion and indeed performance in a market where physical real estate is so insanely, prohibitively expensive. At it's best, the theatrosphere sharpens my critical skills and accelerates networking, but I get my artistic nourishment from the rich spread of work in the real-world locale of DC.
Maybe DCers have it lucky because we're within hailing distance of NyC, so we can enjoy the spectacular buffet of offerings in the big apple while maintaining a home in a circuit where there's space and enthusiasm to spare and where our chief labor remains the creation of live, non-twittered theatre and where we seem to be (on balance) better compensated for our efforts. There is very little means-to-some-elusive-professional-end theatre in DC. The work is the work.
I've been straddling DC and NYC in some contortion other for the past couple years and I still can't make up my mind, so take this perspective for whatever it's worth. My only point is that the Internet will replace theatre before it does anything to help it. But, of course, it can help it, too.

Jack Worthing

Yes, Isaac, you're right: generally rehearsal spaces don't have prosceniums and balconies in them. But that's the case at Steppenwolf. If you want to be pedantic, call it a theatre. But it's only used for rehearsal. I wish it was otherwise. It's a shame.

Rob Ready

@R Lewis

Though I am a bit offended by your statement, "Seriously, young people don’t want to see others in the spotlight. The majority want to see THEMSELVES in the spotlight," you may be on to something.

As I've said above, most of our audience is young, and does not see other theater. And two of our most successful shows, ShortLived and FORKING involved the audience to a huge degree.

ShortLived is a playwriting competition in which the audience decides the winner. We stage 8 short plays from different local writers, have the audiences score each play, then at the end of two weeks tally the scores and drop the four lowest scoring to be replaced by four new plays. This goes on for about three months and at the end there's a big winner who's asked to pen a full length for us in the next year.

FORKING was a fully scripted play in which the audience decided how the plot would proceed (written by the first winner of ShortLived). Every few minutes a host character would come out and ask the audience if they wanted to see this or that, and judging by which option got the most cheers, that's where the play would go.

Both of these shows put the audience in the center of the spotlight and both sold like crazy. FORKING played sold out runs in SF and LA and ShortLived, on it's third year in 2010, will run concurrently in SF and LA.

I think the twist here is that if a young audience wants to be in the spotlight, put them there and they'll reward you for it.


Ian David Moss


Isaiah Tanenbaum

I'm with you about 85% here. There is no silver bullet, technological or otherwise, to completely solve the theatrical audience age gap.

But I'd hold that the remaining 15% is an awareness gap which facebook/twitter/internets use hopes to bridge. It's hard reaching people who aren't regular theater goers, particularly for indie companies with small marketing budgets. Some innovative solutions of new styles of theater have been proposed above, which I'd love to be a part of as an actor, but I think that many theater companies honestly believe -- and have found -- that their (more standard) work can reach and affect the young, if only they could get them to pay attention long enough to buy a ticket.

I strongly second the poster who said that the best crowds are always the young. They let you know what they're thinking, how they feel, and are eager to ask questions at talkbacks afterwards (related tip for molding future audience members: hold talkbacks every time a school group comes by). Group and school sales worked well for Flux when we did Midsummer in June '08, but it was always an uphill battle just letting people know we're doing a good show that's worth seeing.

We are twittering our next play, The Lesser Seductions of History (#LesserSeductions) as the characters in the show (which is also valuable artistically, but that's a side conversation today). While I admit that most of my followers are the usual suspects -- indie theater vets, friends of mine or the company's, the other actors in the show -- there are a non-trivial number who aren't. I'm betting they come to the show. And it doesn't cost anything! Likewise with grassroots facebook organization. Any marketing effort that is free, but results in a single ticket, returns the full value of that ticket to the organization, and that's a win in my book.


FIrst of all, I'd just like to say I find the discussions in these comment threads very gratifying! Thanks and keep it up, folks!

Second, @Isaiah... I think we actually agree 100%. I'm not saying don't use these tools, I'm just saying get the content shit worked out. All the tweets in the world wouldn't get me, any of my friends, or anyone I know to see The Royal Family.

And it's worth noting this post is pitched mainly at institutions and commercial producers, not indie theaters.

The one place I'd disagree with you is with this sentence:
"Any marketing effort that is free, but results in a single ticket, returns the full value of that ticket to the organization, and that's a win in my book."

There are still opportunity costs. In other words, it costs time. There's no such thing as free. The question is "does something which costs X money and Y time and returns Z result a better use of those resources than this thing where costs Q money and R time and returns S result?" The bonus with facebook, twitter etc. is that there's a chance that you can get big results for little time as well. BUt not always. And a lot of times, that's because you've actually spent a lot of time building your following before whatever the result is.

Yesterday, for example, was my highest readership day ever (thanks for that, guys and gals and trans peoples). I spent less than two hours writing the two posts that got that readership. But I've spent five years writing this blog. So did it take me five years or forty five minutes? etc and so forth

Jason Grote

Great post, Isaac. Yes, Twitter/FB/blogs are great tools for raising awareness, but as substitutes for work I'd actually like to see... well, let's just say I spend a lot of time hitting "no" on the 16 or so FB invites I get every single day.

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