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Blue

10.21.11 | Comment?


CATEGORIES audiences, community

I suspect that, for many working in the arts, the weekday matinee is no man’s land.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t operate them, or deal with them, but I do wonder the last time any of you have had occasion to attend one as a member of the audience. After all, we’re usually too busy working in the arts to go to a Wednesday matinee, and it’s probably something we instinctively avoid, given the opportunity.

Why? I suspect it is because of our ingrained aversion to the blue hairs.

Now don’t pretend you don’t know the term. We’ve all used it. I can’t even remember how long I’ve known it, or where I learned it. But for those who are in denial, “blue hairs” refers to the senior audience that frequents matinees, named for a hair coloring with a bluish tinge popular a long time ago. I suspect that even the blue hairs look disparagingly at blue hair, and that the term is vestigial of an earlier time. But it is, no matter how you slice it, a form of disparagement, not endearment.

Over the past couple of months, I have had the occasion to attend two weekday matinees: one in New York, one at a regional theatre; one in the company of a senior citizen in his 80s, one by myself. Because of the ingrained prejudices, I expected an audience of candy-wrapper-crinkling, hearing-aid-feedbacking, loudly-speaking-during-the-show-so-they-could-be-heard-by-everyone patrons.  Isn’t that your image?

Well I can report that none of the above were true, at least no more so than at any other performance I’ve attended lately. What did not happen, I should report, is that no one’s cell phone rang during the show, and certainly no one initiated or accepted a call at any time during the performance.

Now in some quarters, the weekday matinee is a thing of the past. The rise of the working woman in the 70s dissipated one of the core constituencies for these performances, leaving retirees and student groups (which makes for a fascinating mix when equally balanced, with revelatory post-show discussions). Many shows both commercial and non-profit opt for two-show days on Saturdays and Sundays in order to bypass the weekday matinee. But they persist – and so do their loyal audiences.

So why are these performances merely tolerated by those on the inside? Yes, it’s an audience that may be less computer and internet savvy than others; they still need to speak to a human being to buy their tickets. Yes, they may move more slowly than other audiences, but that’s a physical issue, not an intentional one. Is their pre-show chatter louder than some audiences? Sure, but that’s because hearing loss is a natural progression in our lives, not some voluntary game played by the old upon the young for sport.

My recent matinee attendance was eye-opening precisely because I haven’t had the experience in so very long (weekday matinees were staples of school vacations in high school and college, but that’s almost three decades ago) and because the experience was only marginally different than any other performance I ever attend (save, indeed, for the hair coloring, which tends to white, or baldness, where I fit right in). Adding to my sensitivity is the fact that I had, unusually for someone my age, cataract surgery on both eyes in May, and because my wife and I both suffer from chronic neck and shoulder pain which can make sitting in the theatre profoundly uncomfortable. And surely this is just a taste of things to come.

I have every intention of going to the theatre as long as I am able (perhaps another three or four decades if I’m lucky) and as I find myself poised between theatergoing novice and lifelong veteran, I know that I may someday be relegated to the ranks of the once blue-haired, perhaps by virtue of failing eyesight (making it difficult to drive or even be out at night), reliance on civic or private transportation when I can no longer drive myself, or even the tyranny of the early dinner schedule at an assisted living facility. But so long as I’m breathing and mobile, I’ll go to theatre.

Will I deserve anyone’s condescension, let alone scorn, at that point in my life? Surely not. Will my wide-ranging aesthetic suddenly lapse into “just wanting to be entertained,” causing me to seek less challenging work? I hope not, and I doubt it. Might I need a larger print program, or be challenged by steps, or even need audio amplification or audio described performances? It’s entirely possible, and I certainly hope they’ll be available to me without stigma.

I write of these issues because in this era of voluminous blogs about audience development and the cultivation of new audiences, our senior audience seems to be absent. Let me make absolutely clear: the necessity of finding new theatergoers and insuring the long-term health of the form is essential, as is arts education in our schools; nothing in this essay should suggest otherwise. But I fear that an important constituency is being largely ignored, at least in our rhetoric these days, and that we do so out of short-sightedness.

Those who attend our weekday matinees (and often make up a significant percentage of weekend matinee audiences as well) are the same people who have been attending and supporting theatre throughout their lives. They do not suddenly appear at our box offices at age 70 simply because they have nothing else to do, but rather because they value what we do. Indeed, they may have vast knowledge of theatrical work dating back a half-century or more. Instead of being vestiges themselves, they may in fact be untapped resources, not simply fans to be shunted into our volunteer usher or docent corps. And to be perfectly honest, if we have and continue to play meaningful roles in their lives, we may receive their support even after they can no longer sit in our seats.

While I suspect that those inside theatres are indulgent of their senior audiences even when such indulgence might drift into being patronizing, I see evidence of this arts ageism in my forays on the web. Not long ago, one Twitter wit asked where theatre today would be without Social Security, only to have another wag double down by making the jibe specific to a particular theatre here in New York. A British website focused on “A Younger Audience” questioned the repertoire at one of that country’s subsidized theatres for one work which was deemed insufficiently appealing to, well, a younger audience. In Washington DC, discounting tickets for seniors (and students) is under investigation for being a discriminatory practice.

In the creation of art, we celebrate and support the new, the different, the challenging, the innovative. But let’s remember that it was ever thus, and the audience that frequents our matinees may have once been early supporters of the theatres they attend, or the audience for fringe theatre before even such a term was common, whether in Greenwich Village or Seattle.

As someone who has begun to mark my life by how many revivals I now see of work which I saw in its premiere, as I prepare to leave the demographic designated by ratings services and ad agencies as desirable, as I move from the era of weddings and births to, sadly, the era of funerals, theatre will remain my joy and my refuge, and I believe it should be that for every patron. We need to nurture and support all of our audiences for the many things that we can bring to them and they can bring to us, including standing by us when some would marginalize our importance and even our existence in an ever-changing economic and social reality.

Because, dammit, I expect theatre to be there for me in another quarter century, and whatever my falterings and failings, I want to be part of an audience, and not as a special interest to be tolerated. Or else I will truly be blue.

Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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