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Philadelphia’s aging theater audienceBY: Jackie Atkins 10.01.2011
As a frequent theatergoer, I find it amusing and vaguely annoying when the only young people in a theater can be found on the stage. But it’s no joke: This age disparity is responsible for the current dearth of cutting-edge productions in Philadelphia theaters.
Pass the Maalox, or:
Philadelphia’s new theater season opened officially last week with the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Aspects of Love. Unofficially, it began with the offerings at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
While both endeavors pull in big crowds, there’s no mistaking one audience for another.
Even with experimental venues such as Theatre Exile and Pig Iron, the average stage audience in the coming season will be well into its Medicare eligibility years. Conversely, the Fringe festivities attract many who’ll probably never cash out on their Social Security benefits.
The problem isn’t lack of interest in the main stage/ Barrymore scene within Generations X and Y (and even some Zs), but economics. Ticket subscriptions (the prime source of theater revenues) are just too expensive.
About the only time I’ve seen a generational amalgamation— that is, only half being over 62— is at the Walnut, where many downtowners can still score $10 tickets at the last minute.
I haven’t reached retirement age just yet (although I already believe in the resurrecting powers of Lady Clairol). Nevertheless, I find it amusing and vaguely annoying when the only young people in a theater can be found on the stage.
Why should any of this matter? Am I an age elitist?
Not quite. This age disparity, I submit, has hampered the offering of more cutting-edge productions in Philadelphia theaters.
Just as the number of juveniles frequenting movie houses has triggered a made scramble among Hollywood producers to offer fart-ass comedies aimed at 14-year-olds boys, so the abundant supply of senior citizens in Broad Street lobbies seems to have created an endless supply of New York golden oldies as new theater fare.
In this not-so-brave new world, any play that’s really fresh and edgy is met with stone faces and cold hands. The sole exception is the Walnut’s Studio Three, which by its own definition isn’t a mainstream venue.
Lest you hopefully think a New Philadelphia generation will take over the seatings through attrition, think again. Obtaining season tickets to a theater company is no great challenge. Crowds of young theatergoers aren’t elbowing each other to get in. This isn’t like getting season tickets for the Phillies or the Eagles (not to mention the supposed 11-year waiting list for the Lombard Swim Club).
The problem of Philadelphia’s aging theater audience isn’t merely demographic; it’s also geographic. Most of these audiences come into Center City from the suburbs. This might sound like good news for downtown restaurants. But many formerly big-spending suburbanites have lost their appetites since the 2008 real estate crash decimated their home values. As a result, most Center City restaurants increasingly rely on neighborhood diners for their survival.
In the Orchestra’s wake?
If this situation doesn’t change, Philadelphia’s blossoming theater scene— more than 50 companies— could go the way of the Philadelphia Orchestra, relying less and less on patronage and more and more on government support (which is also dwindling).
So let me make a few modest suggestions for local theatrical marketing managers:
1. Introduce a “Friends and Neighbors Night” (specifically to entice a walk-in Philadelphia crowd).
2. Offer package ticket deals to college students.
3. Create incentives to attract young professionals who live in the city.
I will leave the logistics to the professional marketing staffs. After all, I’m just a theatergoer who’d like to charge my juices with more cutting-edge theater— preferably without feeling that I’m the youngest person in the audience.♦
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