Their Entrances and Their Exits


On the Life-cycle of the Theatre Lover

Your patrons are all very old. They’re all going to die. What on earth will you do? Oh, dear. You’d better invest all your time and money into getting young people to come to the theatre, or in a few years, you’ll be alone and starving. Except you won’t, for the simple reason that not only do people keep dying all the time, they also keep getting old—and old people buy theatre tickets.

If you’re reading this, you’re a theatre person and you know lots and lots of young theatre people who spend all their disposable time and money on theatre. You will, quite understandably, imagine that all sorts of young people would buy theatre tickets, if only you used the right hashtag to reach them. You’re wrong: they’re not coming. Their parents probably will, though, and you won’t have to work very hard to reach them or persuade them to subscribe. They want to, and the most common obstacles to their fulfilling that desire are out of the way at last.

I’m speaking in broad generalities, but they’re valid ones. Your typical twenty-three year old isn’t coming to the theatre because she is too busy enjoying the small, wonderful pleasures of living, at last, in her own apartment without parents or professors to demand her attention and obedience. A few years later, that typical young person and all her friends are busy finding mates. They may come to the theatre for a few special dates, but that will be rare—after all, movies are easier to find, with dozens of movie outlets close at hand, in comparison to a few live theatres located down in the old city center, far from the interstate.

A few years later, those young people have babies—and as much as they’d like an evening of real, grown-up entertainment, they don’t have time or energy for it, and they won’t have until those kids are grown and gone. Your child-care program will be a true joy to a few lifelong theatre lovers, so don’t give up on it—but don’t expect it to bring in masses of parents. (You don’t have the capacity for the masses, anyway.) Once the babies grow up, though, and especially once the years of paying college tuition are done, those lively young not-so-young parents will be determined to experience and enjoy all the facets of their humanity that have languished, unexplored, while they pursued careers, found mates, raised children and then briefly wondered what to do with themselves once the kids were gone. They know (or at least believe) that they sacrificed their potential self-knowledge and social development for their kids, and they’re determined to make it up to themselves. They’re going to the theatre.

They are your audience. They are your only reliable, committed audience, apart from a handful of friends you went to school with who have never married or taken jobs that lead to lifelong careers.

Stop complaining about the old folks, and start to understand them if you’re serious about being connected to your community and your audience. Stop chasing the young crowd, unless you want to truck in The Donkey Show or devote the entirety of your next six seasons to American Idiot. Stop panicking about getting tweenagers into the theatre, and welcome their parents. These people are your volunteers, your patrons, your donors, your facebook friends and your subscribers. Cherish them, trust in human nature, and trust in the rotation of the planet. There are more of them getting old, every day.

  • February 9, 2011
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