Their Entrances and Their Exits

02.09.11 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, development, rabble rousing

On the Life-cycle of the Theatre Lover

Your patrons are all very old. They’re all going to die. What on earth will you do? Oh, dear. You’d better invest all your time and money into getting young people to come to the theatre, or in a few years, you’ll be alone and starving. Except you won’t, for the simple reason that not only do people keep dying all the time, they also keep getting old—and old people buy theatre tickets.

If you’re reading this, you’re a theatre person and you know lots and lots of young theatre people who spend all their disposable time and money on theatre. You will, quite understandably, imagine that all sorts of young people would buy theatre tickets, if only you used the right hashtag to reach them. You’re wrong: they’re not coming. Their parents probably will, though, and you won’t have to work very hard to reach them or persuade them to subscribe. They want to, and the most common obstacles to their fulfilling that desire are out of the way at last.

I’m speaking in broad generalities, but they’re valid ones. Your typical twenty-three year old isn’t coming to the theatre because she is too busy enjoying the small, wonderful pleasures of living, at last, in her own apartment without parents or professors to demand her attention and obedience. A few years later, that typical young person and all her friends are busy finding mates. They may come to the theatre for a few special dates, but that will be rare—after all, movies are easier to find, with dozens of movie outlets close at hand, in comparison to a few live theatres located down in the old city center, far from the interstate.

A few years later, those young people have babies—and as much as they’d like an evening of real, grown-up entertainment, they don’t have time or energy for it, and they won’t have until those kids are grown and gone. Your child-care program will be a true joy to a few lifelong theatre lovers, so don’t give up on it—but don’t expect it to bring in masses of parents. (You don’t have the capacity for the masses, anyway.) Once the babies grow up, though, and especially once the years of paying college tuition are done, those lively young not-so-young parents will be determined to experience and enjoy all the facets of their humanity that have languished, unexplored, while they pursued careers, found mates, raised children and then briefly wondered what to do with themselves once the kids were gone. They know (or at least believe) that they sacrificed their potential self-knowledge and social development for their kids, and they’re determined to make it up to themselves. They’re going to the theatre.

They are your audience. They are your only reliable, committed audience, apart from a handful of friends you went to school with who have never married or taken jobs that lead to lifelong careers.

Stop complaining about the old folks, and start to understand them if you’re serious about being connected to your community and your audience. Stop chasing the young crowd, unless you want to truck in The Donkey Show or devote the entirety of your next six seasons to American Idiot. Stop panicking about getting tweenagers into the theatre, and welcome their parents. These people are your volunteers, your patrons, your donors, your facebook friends and your subscribers. Cherish them, trust in human nature, and trust in the rotation of the planet. There are more of them getting old, every day.

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  • Jim,

    So, assuming you are exaggerating to make a point, I’m right with you. The easiest audience to go after for most organizations are those people who are demographically similar to current audience members but who are not attending. Bring a friend deals can be very effective. If you’ve got a lot of unsold inventory, you can even offer a free repeat visit if someone attends for the second time and brings a buying friend. That may not be as exciting as chasing after new demographics, but it is more likely to pay off quickly.

    Michael Kaiser recently blogged along similar lines:


    Having said that, if your mission requires you to reach out to demographics outside of the easy to get, you still have to figure out how to do that.

    Also, it’s worth paying attention to the young playgoers you manage to attract. Kept in the fold, they will become not only part of your audience but keepers of your corporate memory. Sixty year old subscribers at Woolly who have been attending for all or nearly all 31 years are gems of morale and memory as well as stalwart financial supporters, and in most cases some of the coolest people you’re likely to meet.

    • Jim Stark

      Thanks for your comments, Pete. Yes, we must be true to our statements of mission and vision. Also, I do think that every arts organization wants to reach out to all constituencies in the community. Just saying ‘don’t chase the tweenagers while ignoring the base.’ Again, thanks for your generous reading of the post.

  • Jim,

    I couldn’t agree more with the point you’ve articulated here- for many people, the arts are something they have to grow into. At the same time, its important to make sure that we create access to formative arts experiences before people fall into the find mate/build career/have kids cycle so that the arts will stay on their to-do list when they emerge on the other side.

    And thank you for pointing out something that has bothered me for a long time- too many of us show disrespect to the intelligent, creative committed members of our audience who happen to be of a different generation than ourselves. That’s gotta stop. Hear hear.

    Trisha Mead
    Oregon Ballet Theatre

  • Linda Essig

    Because I went to the theatre as a young person, I became a theatre professional and theatre goer for life (and my kids are too). I went to the theatre then as now to see things that were interesting and unusual and made me think and laugh. While that older audience is important, the younger audience is the one demanding new the ideas and new forms that will sustain theatre in the future.

    • Jim Stark

      This is an important point, Linda, thank you for raising it. I, too, bonded with the theatre early and am glad to have seen my kids do the same. I’m not sure, though, that these experiences were driven by my & my kids’ youth, nor by any efforts on the part of theatre companies to reach out to the very young. (By the way, my post isn’t intended to criticize TYA organizations or programs.) In fact, I’ve seen my kids drawn to the theatre by the fact that the adults they admired (not often myself!) were there, and by the powerful fact that in all times, people stay in the theatre because they find dynamic, nurturing social groups there.
      Also, I see older audiences just as interested in new ideas as anyone–it’s a matter of engagement and intellectual vitality, which can thrive at any age.

      Provocative statement here: warning: New forms? I don’t think there are any new forms.

      Many thanks, Linda, for your insightful reading of the post.