What I didn't see at the theater

Yesterday, I went to see "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" at the Irish Repertory Theatre. I'm not going to review the play, but I can tell you that the performance by James Kennedy is definitely something to see. What I want to talk about is the State of the Audience.

I went to see the show because I know a cast member and I know a crew member - and while I know that almost every waiter in the City is also an actor, it was clear that the audience wasn't made up of "friends of...". Rather, the average age of the audience was 60. Granted, it was a summer Saturday matinee, but still - 60? Not great if a theater company wants to survive. The audience needs a median age of 40-ish - difficult to do in these times. Part of that is the rise in ticket prices. I understand that theaters have to pay Equity salaries and IATSE salaries and rent and rental for costumes/props and royalties and other salaries and all that. But it does keep audiences - young, necessary audiences - away.

Artistic vision has something to do with it as well. When I was a Sweet Young Thing (as opposed to the middle-aged curmudgeon I am now) back in 1984, I moved to the Big Bad City because my first job out of college was as the Assistant Business Manager for a renowned Off-Broadway repertory theater company. They had introduced us to many works we now consider "modern classics" (and isn't that an oxymoron?!) and recently had transferred two hits to other OB stages. Many of the actors nurtured by the company are now well-known, and others make a steady living in the realm of "Hey, it's that guy!" performances. Yet when I got there, I became privy to the Behind the Scenes secrets: fiscally, the company was in bad shape and artistically, even worse.

My first season I got paid the whopping salary of $50/week. I worked in the Business and Box Offices, and got a pretty clear picture of the problems. The first was a really bad season that the critics savaged and the audience avoided in droves. One play was cancelled when it became clear that the author was unstable (going on stage and attacking - verbally - the audience and - physically - the people asked to escort her offstage was a major clue). There was a hugely lucky last play that saved the season and ended up transferring to Broadway. In the Business Office, though, things were even more dire. The Assistant Technical Director had been allowed to submit copies of candy wrappers in lieu of actual receipts - not cool in the accounting world. The computerized accounting program (remember, these were the Old Days in terms of computer programs - anyone remember WordStar?) allowed unbalanced transactions to be entered, so by the end of the year there was $10,000 in an account that we had to unravel. Of course, this $10,000 wasn't in one transaction: it was +$10 from one and -$.75 from another, and so on.

The second season my position was eliminated and I took a second job, working full time at an Elite Girls School on the Upper East Side during the day and working in the Business Office nights and weekends. For free. Why? Because by then I was the only one on the "inside" that had any memory of the previous fiscal year. We'd had two Managing Directors and three Business Managers and four Box Office Managers in one 12-month period. The company ultimately became fiscally sound, but the artistic vision never really came back. The Founding Member that had had that vision wanted to try Hollywood (Hollywood felt differently about that) and without that guidance, the company ultimately folded. I made good friends there, but the simple fact was, friends do not a viable theater company make.

Usually things aren't this dire in the world of Off-Broadway. Artistic Directors can leave, but the replacement is someone who can lead the company forward. Sadly, it's not uncommon for a company to not survive because the fiscal issues are too heavy a weight. And part of the problem is the aging of the audience. A subscription series that is priced for people not making millions (or even hundreds of thousands) is usually available only for previews and mid-week matinees. That's not helpful for people that work or have scheduling conflicts that make having a one-week timeframe problematic. Yet many companies cling to this old model and the results are... well... what I saw in the audience yesterday.

It's too bad, because Off-Broadway is where the exciting stuff is happening. It's where innovative productions and interesting actors are being nurtured. Losing that will mean losing part of our cultural heritage. What's the solution? I don't know. But there has to be one. Doesn't there?


Anonymous said...

could part of the problem also be that, for the most part, a lot of new plays aren't coming to off-broadway but to places like chicago and los angeles? seems that chicago especially has a thriving theatre scene and from what I heard the audiences are of all ages.
this could be because the scene there isn't as corporate ie. lion king but once these monsters find out there will also be a culling of the herd due to the wanting of huge profits and getting the tourist dollar which is what the nyc scene seems to be all about

Anonymous said...

Instead of lamenting the fact that people in their 60s attend good theater, why don't we appreciate it? I mean, people in their 60s who have the money and the time (most importantly, the time) are the ones keeping the whole enterprise going, and I think that's great. Many people in their 30s and 40s have kids and/or demanding jobs and lives that just don't allow them to get to the theater very often. But when we do get there (say, maybe once or twice a year), we're sure glad that it's there, and I am grateful to those "older" audience members who make it possible.