OPINION: Bringing New Audiences To The Party

Saturday, May 04, 2013

In modern society there are few greater feelings than being the pioneer of a trend or the first to be a fan of a new band. However in theatre, it is rarely satisfying to be one of only a few who have attended a performance. It is disheartening as the pre-show announcement finishes and the house lights dim you look around and see only a hundred other people in attendance. It is not the kind of experience you would like to keep all to yourself. You want to share it and ensure performances of quality continue.

As a regional venue with tight touring itineraries, performances are generally limited to a single show so there is little opportunity to generate buzz . This is unlike metropolitan venues which can enjoy seasons of shows lasting up to and beyond three months, more than enough time for someone to see a show and tell their friends about it.

Generally speaking, younger audiences tend to distance themselves from plays and theatre as the projected image of one who might attend such an occasion is of an upper-class person, more likely to invest in a monocle and a Rembrandt than an iPhone and a Banksy. Even many local audiences often confirm this observation (although, sadly, they often attend without their monocles).

Breaking through to a new market in limited timeframes and re-establishing cultural perceptions is rarely an easy task.

Modern brand name musicals, though, have managed to achieve this with well-developed branding, Hollywood-style themes and big name actors which are of greater interest to younger audiences. Opening nights for musical productions of Wicked, Legally Blonde and The Addams Family have included red carpets, celebrities and copious hordes of media and during their inevitably extended seasons have drawn crowds ranging from the aforementioned monocle brigade through to those whose first instinct upon arrival is to check-in on Facebook.

Actor Kevin Spacey recently commented “...exposing youngsters to the arts and culture is enormously valuable, by instilling a better understanding of the world, people, and communication skills.”

The ever debatable cost of seeing a theatre performance is a large factor seemingly keeping the younger audiences away. To see Gold Logie winner John Wood star in David Williamson’s The Club will cost $48. Average tickets to performances at London’s West End are selling at an average of £50 each (approx $AU76).

While these prices are not unreasonable, as with the cost of many things in our lives they are subjective. “Kids are not going to spend that kind of money. They’re going to buy iPads, save the money, or do something else,” Kevin Spacey continued.

It has become an issue noticed widely across the entertainment industry. A ticket to see Aerosmith at Rod Laver Arena will cost you up to $289.00 (2 hour concert). A ticket to see a matinee performance of The Addams Family musical is $135.00 (2 and a half hour performance). To see the rugby league Grand Final you may spend up to $200.00 each (80 minute game).

Last week I went to see one of my favourite bands play in the corner of a room above a Chinese restaurant which was above a hotel and even that cost me $55.00.

As Kevin Spacey remarked, younger people are more interested in spending money on modern conveniences or their mortgage and children. Generally, those who can afford the asking prices are those with disposable incomes.

He continued, "When I look around at Broadway and the West End, theatre is becoming an exclusive club. What happens when this generation that is currently going to the theatre passes on to the great theatre in the sky? Who is going to replace them?"

While younger audiences have become regular attendees at shows such as David Strassman and Guy Sebastian, they are noticeably lacking from age appropriate performing arts events such as The Revenge Of The Bat or Natalie Weir’s modern dance production, R&J.

Recent local investigations have shown audiences at plays and musicals average a little over 160. That’s barely one third of capacity at an average price of $45.00 per ticket to see memorable performances by the likes of Lucy Durack, John Jarrett and Peter Phelps. Thankfully, numerous full houses throughout the year balance out the averages.

A recent $10 ticket promotion for the modern re-telling of George Orwell’s Animal Farm proved overwhelmingly successful with over 150 taking up the offer, doubling the audience in only a few days. If this had been offered when tickets initially went on sale would the play have sold out? Would enough people redeem the offer and make the risk financially viable?

How many of the 18,000 would have attended triple j’s One Night Stand if there was a charge on each ticket?

While struggling for crowds, the recently defunct A-League Gold Coast Football Club decided to offer free tickets to one of their mid-season home games. The club had barely managed to attract an average of 4,000 over the course of the season, a disaster in football expectations and the eventual reason for their demise. Yet when free tickets were on offer there were close to 30,000 in attendance. It ended up becoming a social experiment which delivered more questions than it did answers, not only for the club but for the entire entertainment industry.

How do you maintain that level of response and enthusiasm, as DRTCC comparatively saw with the Animal Farm offer, over the course of the year?

Changing the culture is a whole other conversation altogether. While someone may enjoy coming to see live entertainment just to be part of it, others may consider the proverbial ‘better thing’ to be done with their time.

Many considerations are currently filtering out of the imaginations of DRTCC staff onto the suggestions page for 2014, including lower prices for plays and musicals, theatre memberships and tweaks to the subscription process to entice mature, pre-pension audiences to experience theatre and live performance.

Where metropolitan venues must re-establish themselves as modern institutions, Dubbo Regional Theatre has the luxury of being a relatively new facility and continues to implement fresh ideas to attract younger audiences to the theatre.

Children’s shows such as James and The Giant Peach and the upcoming Possum Magic have enjoyed sold out performances with little promotion beyond the mention of their name. While many of these attendees still enjoy French fry sandwiches and One Direction, as they develop their cultural lifestyle they will continue to remember the positive experience of a theatre show and carry that through their teens and into adulthood.

An investment in a live performance culture is not for a month or a year. It can be decades in the making but the rewards to the facility, the regional culture and, in particular, the individual can be unmeasurably positive.

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