Thursday, January 8, 2009

Where is the New Young Audience for Indie Theatre?

Last month, Isaac Butler posted a provocative column on his website, Parabasis, entitled No-Brainer Secrets Revealed!, about the best ways for theater to reach younger audiences. Butler surmised that the best way to bring them in is to do uncompromising work and offer it at a reasonable price. The work will speak for itself. If you build it, Butler said, the audience will come.

Easier said then done, though. Butler then homed in on a larger point; that most theater companies don’t want to reach out to younger audiences because that’s not where the money is. In other words, to cater their work to such an audience would indeed be a compromise. So the question is what do theaters want? To reach people or to make enough money?

There is no one answer to this question. Writers, performers, and producers alike must want to do good work. But the easier it is to make a living at it, the better able they are to keep putting on original, personal artistic work. And it is also hard to lump in all theater companies when the Off-Off world, more than anywhere else, I imagine, is made up of very distinct companies with very heterogeneous missions.

The other question is, what do audiences want? Who do they want to see portrayed? Is money the major issue, or is it interest? Again, the term “younger audience” also needs to be broken down and defined in order to figure out how best to appeal to that demographic. Are we talking about young audiences who have dramatic aspirations, or young laypeople, or both? And what spectrum does “young” include?

Even when figuring this out, there is no easy answer to the main question. Would revivals of known works be best? Does an original work have to have some measure of gimmickry or novelty in order to create buzz? Is this audience only likely to turn out if they have friends involved in a production?

I’ve never met Butler, but I should say that I’m a big fan of his site and his writing, including the column I reference here. I agree with his stance and the point he makes. But I look to it as a tipping point, of sorts, to engender an ongoing dialogue about what makes theater thrive, a quest more important than ever in our current economy.

The entire point of the IT Awards was to foster a sense of community throughout the hard-working, passionate members of the Off-Off world. I believe they have gone a long way in cementing a feeling of camaraderie among the various production companies doing their thing. But that community is far from limited to the people doing the work; the people who show up are just as important. I would like to think that the IT organization can also help in figuring out exactly what audiences are out there, and how we can appeal to them. Perhaps this very newsletter can even help the process.

What do you think, faithful readers?

Contributed by Doug Strassler

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