Boston Theaters Fight for Younger Audiences

Next time you are at the theater take a look around you, and don’t be surprised if you are struck by waves of white hair cascading down from the balcony. The Broadway League—the trade association of the New York theater industry—in a 2010-2011 report of audience demographics found that the average age of theater-goers that season was 44, and that all ages under 30 were highly under-represented. The old age of audiences is not a problem unique to Broadway; similar trends have been noticed in theaters everywhere. Why aren’t young people going to the theater, and what moves can be made to attract younger crowds and to save theater-going from dying out along with the current attendees?

The Huntington Theatre Company, in partnership with Boston University, has recently taken action to try to answer these questions and provide solutions. M. Bevin O’Gara, the Associate Producer at the Huntington, believes this trend is largely due to the way modern youth live their lives. “I used to think that it meant theater is dying, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think those who have the time and money to sit in the theater and be quiet for two hours are 45 plus,” says O’Gara. “I think there’s a lot of energy and interest from younger generations, but we are so much busier than we used to be.”

O’Gara believes that one way to combat this trend is to make theater-going a more connective social event. “35 Below” is an exclusive promotional “club” created by the Huntington, which offers $25 tickets to patrons aged 35 and under. O’Gara said that the inspiration for the program was serendipitous, and it just involved tweaking a program the Huntington already had. “The idea for ‘35 Below’ actually started out accidentally at a meeting I had with the upper staff, where someone mentioned in passing that tickets for anyone 35 and under were $25 for any show and I said ‘Oh, well I had no idea,” says O’Gara. ”Another staff member said, ‘Why don’t you change that?’ and so we started a program that would spread the word about this ticket price that the Huntington has.”

Having purchased “35 Below” tickets, patrons gain access to after parties that occur four times each season, replete with live music, drinks, and games. Thus, “35 Below” has become more than a simple discount program or publicity stunt. Ryan A. Impagliazzo, a patron and part-time employee of the Huntington, says that the club’s greatest merit is its ability to make theater-going a social event and a fulfilling night out. “I think theater works best when it is an event: dinner before, drinks after, inviting friends for a whole evening rather than just sitting in a dark theater for two hours,” he says.

The creative team at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) has a different philosophy about attracting audiences to their productions. Jared V. Fine, the Marketing and Communication Manager at the A.R.T., says that the vision of the creative team is centered on crafting an experience for the audience rather than appealing to a specific demographic. Fine believes that the under-representation among younger audiences is rooted in programming choices. “I think if you focus on producing things that are relevant to our society now, you are going to reach the demographics of everyone, rather than just gearing productions towards a certain group. If people see something on stage that they can relate to their own lives, that is going to build a connection,” says Fine. For him, a good example of this is “Prometheus Bound,” which played last season. While being an older story, it also had lyrics by Stephen Sater, who wrote “Spring Awakening.”

In order to reach a wide and varied demographic, the A.R.T. strives each year to put together a season that will appeal to all ages, classes, and tastes. One certainly sees this when reviewing the list of productions in the A.R.T.’s 2012-2013 season. It began with “Marie Antionette,” a period tragicomedy with a modern spin, ends with the classic and beloved “The Glass Menagerie,” and has everything from epic theater to circus in between. “There is something for everyone,” says Fine.

Boston theater companies are struggling to make theater-going a social event and to cultivate young audiences. Different companies are employing different strategies. “[Boston is] a college town, and there are so many young people here. There’s no reason why they shouldn't be engaging culturally across this city,” O’Gara says. These programs are meant to be long-term solutions and a way of attracting new subscribers.“We want to make Boston a place they want to stay after they graduate,” she says.