Getting students back in theaters

by Beacon Staff • October 13, 2011

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strongBenjamin Kabialis, Theater Columnist/strong

What will happen to theater when the current audience quite literally dies out?

According to The Broadway League, a publisher of theater statistics, the average age of a Broadway patron in 2010 was 47.9 years old.  This is older than in seasons past, according to their report. One might expect it to be different in Boston, a city overflowing with artistically-minded college students. But Jim Torres, the marketing director for the South End’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, said their average audience member is 45-50 years old — a figure he said is actually younger than most Boston audiences.

Theaters across the United States are presenting their plays for people 45 and older, and many aren’t even trying to attract younger patrons.

New works and progressive ideas, the lifeblood needed to save the industry, seem to have no room in conservative theater seasons designed for a homologous crowd of middle-aged Caucasians. Boston is burdened by theaters like the Lyric Stage Company, whose 2011-2012 season offers the frivolous sixteenth century comedy of language, emOr/em, yet another run of the overdone and overrated emAvenue Q/em, and emThe Temperamentals/em, which deals conservatively with gay rights in the 1950s rather than discussing the continuing struggle in our own time.

This cautious mindset — so fearful of losing the few people who fill seats — will lead the industry to an artistic and creative death.

The economic climate has created a sort of downward spiral within American theater. With fewer families and youths able to afford tickets, theaters are forced to resort to conservatism in order to keep their doors open. But this only works as a short-term strategy. Their nightmarish unwillingness to experiment alienates younger customers and new creators — the very people that can make this industry sustainable in the future — because they find it stale and expensive.

The belief that it is impossible for a theater to stay in business while appealing to a younger and more diverse audience is absurd. There are a few local theaters seeking out and drawing in the younger crowds. Performing arts professor Maureen Shea points to the A.R.T., or American Repertory Theater, which has thrived off disco adaptations of Shakespeare, fresh plays, and experimentation. The Company One Theater in the South End focuses on highlighting the varied creative voices in Boston and has a season consciously spotlighting the work of diverse and progressive young playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Kristoffer Diaz.

There are over 50 colleges and universities in this city. If Boston theaters want to cultivate diverse audiences, future sustainability, and a theater of artistic progress, they will need to use this to their advantage.  As interest in the art form itself decreases, it is not only the programming that needs to change, but also the nature of theater itself. If Boston theaters can find a way to form relationships with local schools and transform theater into a vessel for social change and activism, the city can become the model for an improved art.

emKabialis is a junior writing, literature, and publishing major. He can be reached at benjamin_kabialis@emerson.edu./em