Where is our future audience?

Last night I went to see the Vancouver Playhouse’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone (which is, by the way, a wonderfully cheese-filled romp through musical theatre lead by Jay Brazeau–go if you get a chance). I was happy to see that the house was packed out, even though it was a cold night, and the weather was calling for snow.

Sitting in my seat, I started looking around, checking out the crowd. The median age, I would say, in a very unscientific way, was well into their 50’s. There were a few young people in their 20’s and 30’s, maybe one teenager, but for the most part, it was an audience that looked like they were either retired, or not far from it.

And I’m not so much talking demographics, here. This show was a lot of fun, had quite a young cast, and was energetic. There was nothing in this show that young people would not like. So, where are they?

The concern I had last night as I looked around was this: if this is the Playhouse’s main audience, their subscribership, what is the Playhouse going to do when they are gone? Their audience is, pardon the expression, dying off.

This is an issue that affects all of us who are producing theatre in Vancouver, but more so those companies that rely upon subscribers to sell thier season (like the Playhouse and the Arts Club). How do we get a younger audience hooked on theatre? Money could be a factor–student tickets for Drowsy are $33, and for an adult, up to $56. I totally get that the Playhouse has put together a lavish production that looks great and they need to pay for that (including the wages of my friend Nick who is in the band), but it is possible that ticket prices are keeping younger people from seeing theater.

A recent production at Havana by a local, young company called Itsazoo (all four of its artistic directors are in their 20’s) managed to do quite well, and sell out most of the shows in their run. They kept ticket prices to $15 and spread the word through Facebook and their own personal network.

The Playhouse does have a Facebook presence, with both a group and an event page for the play. But something is still not quite connecting–where is our future audience, and how do we get in touch with them?

I’d love to hear your comments.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 11

  1. Great post Bex, this is such a huge topic I’m shocked that there’s not more chatter about it. Marketing to the youth is not only essential for our future proliferation, it’s just a smart idea period. Let’s face it, it’s not like we’re going to suddenly change all the 35 year olds in the city into rabid theatre fans. Their prejudices are set, they’re having families…it’s the kids; the high-school and early college age that we’ve got to work the outreach to.

    And I don’t mean the theatre classes. They’re already there, they’re doing the musical theatre etc, I think we’ve got to get the ones that think they wouldn’t like theatre because it’s all singing and dancing or whatever, and show them that theatre is kick ass, gritty, identifiable and rock and roll. Theatre that those kids would respond to is always treated with kid gloves…no swearing! No Sexuality! Today’s youth is incredibly smart and mature, they need to be given that respect.

    I proudly signed off on the rights to one of my plays for a private school in Ontario last year, after the theatre instructor saw a production of it in Toronto, and it’s part of the Grades 11-12 curriculum now. And I was in utter disbelief…the play was about psychological violence and peppered with expletives, all I could think is that if I was doing that kind of mature material in high school, I’d be hooked for life. The constant mountings of Grease in my high school days did nothing to pique my interest in the theatre.

    We marketed our last play to the students at VFS last month, and we had a bunch of reservations made for 12 and more 19-21 year olds throughout the run (thank god), and some of these kids came back 2 or 3 times! They loved it, and that play was solidly a PG-13. For many of them it was literally their first play, these kids are now theatregoers. Boom.

  2. This is a problem everywhere. Summer theatre here in Ontario just seems to cater to this increasingly aging audience – what are Stratford and Shaw going to do in ten-twenty years?

    Why not try to get those patrons in their 30’s and 40’s? I wonder if it’s priorities or the choices being made – There’s nothing in the content of theatre seasons that even remotely peaks my interest, that makes me feel part of a theatre going community.

    As for teens, it’s true the white washing of theatre in schools (can’t let them actually see anything that might be, I don’t know, REAL) is a determent to creating a future theatre goer. I am constantly amazed at how adults think that showing teenagers a less perfect life will scar them somehow. Isn’t that how we learn how to handle life? Have they ever heard of a post play discussion?

    A teacher told me this week she wasn’t allowed to use the phrase ‘that sucks’ in a play. Cause really, isn’t that the worst thing kids are saying in the hallways….

  3. Let’s considering who we’re marketing to:

    30-40 year olds: generally they are raising young children. It’s not just the cost of theatre that’s prohibitive — it’s the effort of setting up child care, etc., and then actually getting out of the house. Once you’re out on a date, you want to have some private time together, and you want less noise. Also, generally, you don’t want gritty, angry, or ugly. You don’t want to think about ugliness when you’re bringing up young offspring into this world.

    15-30 year olds: I can’t think of a more diverse group. The main competition you face is “free” entertainment that you can get at home (Internet, music & TV). The amount you have to pay is less a concern than “why should I pay at all?” Kids will lay down $90 bucks for a concert, so $33 bucks shouldn’t be a concern if they think it’s worth it.

    I haven’t seen Drowsey (I hear its great) but from what I know, it’s about a funny man sharing his love of musicals with the audience and features an old-fashioned musical. Whether or not there are aspects of the show a young person might love, it sounds to that the audience the show has attracted is exactly who it should be attracting. If the producers are concerned about getting a younger audience to also show up, then I would advise selling family discounts (eg. bring one child/grandchild and they can bring a sibling/friend for free).

    But if they’re selling out, then I’m sure they’re not too worried about it.

  4. Thanks, all, for your really thoughtful posts.
    Aaron, I’m one of those thirty-somethings with a small child, and yeah, you’re right, it is prohibitive for me to think about going to the theatre. I hire a babysitter for openings of show I am working on, but that’s work.
    I’m wondering about this: I’ve been reading to my son since the day he was born, and now, at five, without any formal teaching, he can read. Reading has been such a big part of his life, that it just naturally came to him. I wonder if theatre could be the same–if we took our kids to the theatre in a really normal way, they’d grow up thinking that’s what everyone does, and think it was normal to go to Shakespeare instead of something out-of-the-ordinary. Maybe, like religion and sex education, we need to start our artistic teaching at home. And then we can take them to shows that are a bit edgier, if we feel that it’s appropriate, but have ‘the talk’ with them after wards about what we saw and how it affected them.
    I’m really happy we’ve started this dialogue!!

  5. On Broadway, I’ve read that marketing to families is becoming a much more important consideration for commercial producers of musicals. The “family-friendly” musical is one of the safer bets at the box office – especially after The Lion King.

    It can sometimes be a stretch for young families to bring their kids to the theatre because of cost. But for professional families — those who’ve established their careers before having kids and have more disposible income — it’s public outing that strenghtens family bonds.

    I think for indie theatre, this doesn’t help much. Most (not all, but…) of us are into darker, edgier subject matter. Which is fine: you have to market to another tribe with more likeminded views. It’s just a matter of convincing them that your stuff is worth checking out.

    … which means that, before anything else, your stuff has to be worth checking out. Quality first, yes?

  6. Just catching up on this great discussion, Rebecca! I too noticed the average age of the Drowsy Chaperone audience when I attended, so was particularly interested in this discussion.

    I agree that theatre, and reading (and music!) must be things you expose your kids to as early as possible. That advice caught my eye as I can see myself putting it to use in the foreseeable future! (I’m not a Dad yet, but I think it’s gonna be on the horizon before long!)

  7. hey rebecca, it’s nathan from electric co here.. interesting topic.. my two bits..

    I think it’s important to look at the theatre ecology in any canadian community a ladder, where rungs represent escalating venue sizes, leading us to “the top” – a healthy arts community where all tastes are being served and all houses are relatively full. The large houses are at the top of the ladder, the 300 seat venues are in the middle, and the 50-150 seaters are the lower rungs.

    There would be no market or artists left in town to reach the top rung, if there weren’t these lower ones to climb and practice on.

    A larger institution like the playhouse looks to younger companies like Itsazoo to be developing PH’s audiences of the future, and no doubt recognizes and supports their role in this. They know Itsazoo can produce and theatre more cheaply, with content that might appeal to fewer people, because this young company hasn’t grown in to union deals and substantial overhead yet. They might not offer as complete a work of art, but you could argue the average younger audience doesn’t recognize this. They’re just aware they are getting a great experience for the price.

    After 25 consistent years of theatregoing however, I believe they will by then appreciate the difference between a large-venue theatre experience at an institution and one in a small box, and have love and the budget for both.

    In Victoria ten years ago, gaps at the bottom of the venue ladder meant a real waning of energy in the live theatre scene. Several small houses closed for a variety of reasons, and after a few years there didn’t seem to be many opportunities for young artists. So the artists all left after graduating; no energy at the bottom. Then artists started being imported for professional productions, who had no local friends or family to attend and hype the shows – plus audiences were no longer being developed for the larger venues by small ones. No energy at the top. It took the gradual opening of some new venues like the event centre and metro studio to get that energy back and get audiences climbing the ladder again, and the heads of the large venues were rightly very supportive of the smaller companies who were in a position to lead this effort.

    So.. all that to suggest: when we see the playhouse full of oldsters, It’s only really a sign of bad things to come if there aren’t events elsewhere in the city that are full throughout the year with the rest of us.


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