Thoughts from a Youngster on Attracting Youngsters to the Playhouse

I’m a young. It’s what my friends and I call ourselves—the youngs. And indeed, in my country of residence, Israel, I’ll be a young for a long while yet.

This past month, while visiting my family in Seattle, WA, I went to the theatre a few times. I was shocked to realize that at twenty-six, I no longer qualified for a “young” audience ticket. Even further, I was shocked to discover that the price differential was approximately forty-fifty dollars. Finally, I was shocked to sit through performances with half-empty houses.

As a young, then, I’m prone to getting a little hot and bothered about things. Hopping mad. I started to ask everyone my age (or thereabouts) if they went to see plays, and if they did, if it was something they found affordable. Most people my age, in my highly scientific survey of asking random bar-patrons and my high-school friends, do not see the theatre. Nor do they find it affordable. In fact, many wished it cost less because they want to be people who see theatre.

Fearlessness is very hard to sell to subscribers. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in the past month substituting irony and cynicism for fearlessness—irony is, at its core, a mechanism for appearing fearless without having to do the work.

There is a not-small amount of worry about developing and training new audiences to replace the (frankly) dying set of current subscribers. “How do we attract younger audiences?!” “We’ll throw a $70 special event!”

Friends, this doesn’t work. We, the youngs, want to see theatre. We want to see brave, fearless, and honest theatre. More importantly, we want to be able to afford it.

Being asked to spend $70 for a regular house seat, because I’m one year older than Joe Post-Bacchalaureate, and then being sat in a house which is at best half-full, is infuriating. Knowing that the house could be significantly more full at a lower price point is maddening.

Planning seasons is hard. Trying to keep subscribers interested. Trying to attract younger audiences and convert them into new subscribers. Meeting your mandate as the “Premier Clown-based Shakespearean Site-Specific Theatre of the West-Cascades,” while attempting to also meet that amazing grant’s criteria. There are a lot of balls in the air, and it seems like the one that gets forgotten is the one that doesn’t worry about the bottom line.

I believe that the future of theatre depends on abandoning season-building against scarcity. I’ve long felt that as a theatre artist, as a director and a playwright, I have a duty to make the best art I can not because it speaks my truth, but because it educates my audience about something. Maybe it educates them on how to sit still in a strangely shaped immersive arena. Maybe it teaches them about opening themselves up to the process of grief. Possibly it even inculcates the value of paying for art! But the message that every production is at some level striving to get across, if at the very least about the story of the play, is best served when we make it most fearlessly.

Fearlessness, of course, is terrifying. It demands going to the edge of comfort, and willingly stepping out into the unknown abyss. Fearlessness is very hard to sell to subscribers. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in the past month substituting irony and cynicism for fearlessness—irony is, at its core, a mechanism for appearing fearless without having to do the work.

These are hard things I’m saying. Hopefully, at this point, you, my reader, are screaming at the screen something along the lines of “who are you, little boy, to try and mandate how we plan our seasons?!”

I’m really a nobody. But I believe that we have arrived in a world where if we want to be relevant, we must “art” as big as we can. We must be overly ambitious, and damn the consequences, because if we aren’t, our souls die for sure, and if we are we may simply fail and hit another mark.

After all, I’m not the only person in the twenty-five to forty demographic who wants to see good, gripping work. I’m not the only person who wants to pay a fair price for a fair piece. And I’m not the only person who’s tired of saying this.

a group of actors with masks
Production shot from one of my recent amazing theatrical escapades in Tel Aviv: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Photo by Beit Lessin.

The following are some lessons I’ve learned from the Tel Aviv theatre scene that could apply to the rest of the world, as tools to encourage younger audience participation:

  1. Affordable subscriptions. The major theatre houses of Tel Aviv have decently priced subscriptions; and in addition to that, they provide special subscriptions to students and soldiers. They’re limited to the back half of the house, but for $45 dollars, you have access to six mainstage events across the season. In Seattle, the ACTPASS is starting to get there.
  2. Make expansive seasons. In the states, many regional theatres are doing a packed season if they have ten plays in their nine-month run. The Seattle Repertory Theatre has approximately twenty days of overlap between its two mainstage theatres (Jinx Monsoon’s revue not withstanding; which, confidential to Seattle Rep: do more of this). That makes it harder to get into the audience, because some of these great options are only here for short engagements, with limited houses. Coupled with the high cost of a ticket, and it’s hard to turn to the theatre for entertainment. In Tel Aviv, almost every major theatre is producing several works on several stages at once—both their own productions, and supporting smaller companies by renting their other performance spaces. The options, then, are tremendous, and at times incredibly overwhelming. I once went to the wrong theater looking for show A, which company B was producing at site 3 of theater C: I’d arrived at site 2 of theater C where company D was putting on show E. We worked it out.
  3. Work that feels worth the money. I can’t tell you the number of times recently that I have been asked to fork over a ton of money, money I barely have, to see a show in a half-empty house, which didn’t really deliver on even the basic theatrical contract of a catharsis. In part this is because I was really angry about paying a lot of money to sit in an empty theatre; part of this is because I’m seeing a worrying trend of using irony and cynicism to cover for true fearlessness. Young people will show up for fearless theatre.
  4. Widen the range of “young” audience member ages. Twenty-five isn’t the same career game changer that it used to be. Lots of the twenty-five-year-olds I know are just getting the first job that meets payroll and has benefits. This doesn’t mean they can suddenly magically afford the full price ticket. In Israel, between army service, post-army “grand journeys,” and other cultural realities that mean a late arrival to university and thus “adult” jobs, it isn’t uncommon to see “youth” tickets sold up to and including thirty-five-year-olds. What this means is that this audience is considered, therefore, valuable.
  5. Trust us to come. The fear that young audiences won’t come is trenchant, tangible, and offputting. There is nothing more likely, in my experience, to keep a target audience from coming than gimmicky tricks attempting to make the experience more palatable.

I’ve said a lot. Many of you are probably still asking who the hell I am to just sort of proclaim things about my “generation.” I’m just a youngish theatre lover and artist, who also worries about building new audiences for the next generation of theatre. But I don’t think cocktail parties and engagement events around yet another production of Romeo and Juliet, or Our Town, is going to get us there. My cohort is diverse. My cohort is large and contains multitudes. My cohort really values emotionally honest and accessible art, and my cohort doesn’t need to be convinced of the value of theatre. We just need to be supported in coming.

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I think the more important take-away from this article (besides cost)...is fearlessness.

I think audiences these days want to be surprised or to see something unexpected.

In this age, theatre DOES have the advantage of being the live, in person, intimate experience that other forms of entertainment are not. BUT we don't have the advantage of fast paced editing...and many theaters don't have the budget for high tech spectacle and effects. So this means that we really have to redouble our efforts to not be boring.

Frankly, I've been to so many plays where I've thought to myself "I'm only seeing this because I'm a theatre person...If I weren't into theatre, there's no way I would be here".

So much American theatre is just basically a costumed lecture.

Seriously.. who (other than a theatre person) wants to watch a bunch of people on stage dressed up as middle or upper class people sitting around at a dinner party philosophizing about stuff....oh, and then a "secret is revealed and old rivalries are stoked".

I think audiences, younger audiences in particular, want to see plays where there is action...where something actually happens on stage besides just people talking about stuff that happened offstage or in the past.

And of course, most theatre people reading this comment will assume that I'm not talking about them.....but I am.

First, Israel's Culture Ministry has an $80 million annual budget to serve a population of 7.8 million, a bit over half the U.S. NEA's annual budget of around $150 million aimed to serve the U.S. population of 323.7 million. So the Israeli government is likely subsidizing the real cost per seat of those "cheaper" young tickets, while the U.S. government's money goes nowhere near as far to address youth access issues. Many theatres with annual budgets under $250,000 receive no government subsidies at all, national, regional, or local. The cost of production still has to be covered, and giving away or nearly giving away seats doesn't address that need.

Second, lowering ticket prices makes them appear less valuable to the wealthy segment of the population capable of individual philanthropic giving, on which U.S. arts are heavily dependent. This is one reason why the large regional theatres have no trouble attracting wealthy donors while smaller companies struggle. Wealthy donors assume a higher-priced ticket means the art is better quality and thus more worthy of their charitable gift. (There are foundations that subsidize access for underserved populations, but they, again, often don't consider applications from theatre companies with budgets under $1 million.)

Third, without sizable corporate and foundation subsidies and individual giving to underwrite such youth-ticket programs, it IS actually more cost-effective to have empty seats. Filling seats requires money and time spent on marketing, and it makes more sense with limited marketing dollars to market full-price tickets, rather than reduced-price youth seats. A more accurate comparison isn't 70 $10 seats filled against 20 $35 seats filled: It's filling 20 $35 seats with the original marketing campaign, and then hoping some young people will pay a rush price of $10 for the remaining seats, with the additional new costs associated with marketing such a discount rush program. Which also teaches young people to wait until the last minute for their seats hoping for a bargain, exactly the opposite of what theatres need to keep running (the reliability of advance sales).

Ok, you caught me: there is a huge disparity in funding availability. That said, the Culture Ministry, which is actually known as the Ministry of Culture *and Sport* has been spending much more of its money on supporting sports in recent years, and is currently headed by the Israeli Jesse Helms, in my opinion: so we will have to see how it's borne out.

Listen, there are a ton of concurrent issues going on with attracting audiences and maintaining funding! I do not believe there aren't. I simply wanted to identify some potential areas with some potential strategies for attracting younger audiences: one day the wealthy older subscribers will be gone. This is not a threat, it is a fact of biology. And god help us if we haven't built audiences that will replace them.

It's also possible that LORT and regional theaters aren't going to be the right model going forward. It's possible we want to look toward something like http://www.12avearts.org/, which is several smaller companies banding together to create a home-space.

I don't know the one true answer to everything, unfortunately. If I did, I can assure you I would be king of the world and making many more shekel per hour than I do now.

Abraham, I appreciate your response and there is a lot of good food for thought in this post (especially your list of five suggestions, I'm a big fan of 1, 3, and 5 in particular). Thanks for your openness to my frustration with the economic factors that are driving what, to many people, may look like a lack of effort to attract younger audiences.

Again I feel the need to comment because of an existing negative comment. For my reaction to this essay was far different than that of Dina Janis. (Though I agree that those who can pay hundreds of dollars for rock concerts or brand-name possessions shouldn't complain too much about the cost of theater.)

But my main takeaway from Abraham Benson-Goldberg's essay is a point that I've long been thinking as well: That a theater's top priority to be that virtually all seats for all performances are sold -- regardless of the profit on each seat -- rather than rely on the large profit on the seats (often only half the house) that are sold.

This would require innovative methods that involve paying serious commissions on the sale of all those normally-unsold seats (in a way that doesn't seriously impede the profit on the existing sales), but I am now (thanks to Abraham's comments) more convinced than ever that this is key to the continued viability of theater.

well... I must say- the perspective here is one of entitlement...art has a value- it is expensive to produce. sure- the back of house subscription pass is a great idea- but almost every theatre I know has some kind of accessible ticket price point- and in the old days we used to do standing room only on broadway- a "thing" which still exists. if you have a passion for theatre- then you find a way to see things- even the most expensive broadway show. after reading this- I thought... perhaps the approach we who put our lives and souls into producing theater in America and keeping it alive- need to take is to completely- 100% - stop catering to this mindset. perhaps we should stop - and instead- put the narrative out there that theatre has a value- just like those $250 tickets to a rock concert, or the new shoes of the month- or 3 days worth of american spirit cigarettes- and possibly- its a matter of asking the "young" to grow up in their minds. no generation had it easy. the old-timers sitting in the house now may have lived thru the depression, wars, immigration and all sorts of other challenges.

Dina, thanks for your comment!

I'm sorry to hear that your take away of this blog post is one of my feeling entitled to "free" art. I'm actually a big believer in ascribing meaningful value to art! And paying for it! But I guess what I'm curious about, and what I was trying to get at is why the value has to be so hugely expensive, and burdensome on the very people who are as point of fact, the future of theatre-goers. We can "take a stand," and maybe never have anyone ever come see a play ever again, or we can find ways to make the theatre we want to make, at the price point we want to make it at, and still sell tickets that are valuable/fair.

One of the best shows I've ever seen, which I gladly paid for, was an animal/clown show with a very low production budget, and very high performance value. It isn't a burden to pay a fair price for good art. It's a burden to pay what feels a very unfair price for not as good art.

As such, I simply offered suggestions for things that would draw me and my peers to the theatre, and in fact, draw us to many theaters around the world.

I think what I mean to say is- that most resident theaters I know have so many ways in which one can see shows for very little. They work hard to create accessibility- from ushering to unique lower cost ticket opportunities. Beyond cost- programming is another matter- and in that sense- many are still stuck in a "slot" programming mentality- in order to capture various audience demographics. I appreciate your commentary- but it just felt like a list of what "we" the young want in order to be drawn into the theatre. For my money- attention span is a huge issue in the generation of folks raised on-line, and that may have just as much to do with people enjoying sitting in one place, with focus, for 2-3 hours- with no interruptions. The intimacy of the moment- in real time- with real humans sitting next to you- is also challenging for many these days. Those elements are very interesting to look at as well- and if talked about more, could result in awareness of how important it actually is to choose to experience communal art. Any way- I appreciate your tackling this subject- as it is THE subject after all--

Yes, I do think we are losing to more "consumable" forms that are bite-sized, or can be started and stopped at leisure.

I am also not so concerned when I look at the amazing things my peers are creating--they are making the art I want to pay for! Also I am hopefully making the art they want to pay for!

I do think that theatre audiences tend to be older, because they are the ones who have the disposable income and time to attend. While I do agree with some of what you've said, Dina, I have to disagree about the accessibility of theatre for younger audiences. I do believe there is a fundamental difference in costs associated with visiting theatre now than in the past. Tickets cost more, and there are more costs associated with getting there. Yes, theatre is expensive to produce - however, if you have a half-empty theatre, you aren't making any money either. Is it not better to have "bums in seats" and get your work viewed? Also, if you are not in a major urban centre, and need to travel to see theatre - there's just not a cost-effective way to do it. I'm in my mid-30s, and both my husband and I have full-time employment. That doesn't equal a lot of disposable income - any extra money we do have goes towards our house and our kids. We do see theatre, but that's only because I work in one and have access to lower-priced tickets. For us to go anywhere to see theatre - there's extra costs involved - getting a babysitter for our young children, travel expenses, and if we're seeing anything outside of the region - costs to stay in the "big city". Assuming young people are just choosing to spend their money on other things is not necessarily a correct assumption.