The aging performing arts audience

The ensemble for Anne McEvoy's "The Crocodile, The Cobra & The Girl Down The Well" at Talespinner Children's Theatre

Most of us have read about, many of us have witnessed, and some of us are living proof of the aging of the performing arts audience.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the average age of those attending classical music performances, the ballet, jazz concerts and plays is increasing. This is not just because the median age of the general population is creeping up as well; it is the result of one generation of audience members not being adequately replaced by the next.

Big Data reports that the vast majority of subscribers to the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater were born between the mid-1920s and the mid-1940s, followed by members of the early “Baby Boomer Generation” who were born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s. And the average age of attendees for the touring Broadway shows coming through Playhouse Square is 53 years old.

It can certainly be argued that audiences for theater have always skewed older, dating back to the ancient patrons attending ancient Greek performances. When young, no matter the millennium, we tend to gravitate toward new artists and new art forms until our interests, income and evenings become more amenable to traditional pursuits.

But in recent years, fewer young people have been returning to the fold.

Broadway’s solution to securing its future and, by extension, the future of national tours of Broadway shows, is to rewrite some of the rules of the hit musical. Just like “Hair” did 50 years ago and “Rent” did 20 years ago, “Hamilton” infuses its storytelling with relevant themes, contemporary music and dance, and color-controversial casting to attract “Generation Xers” and “Millennials.”

Local theaters such as Blank Canvas and the Beck Center for the Arts have gone a similar route by adding off-kilter, Off-Broadway musicals like “Bat Boy,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Ruthless” to their more traditional schedules.

Others offer student discount tickets in an effort to reach teens and 20-somethings with less disposable income than older subscribers.

The first Sunday of every Dobama Theatre production is a “Pay-as-You-Can” performance and Great Lakes Theater introduces over 15,000 students to theater each year through its discounted “All Student Matinee” performance dates.

Cleveland Public Theatre lures in young locals with “Free Beer Fridays” and through strategic social media outreach and engagement.

Playhouse Square and Mercury Theater aim younger with their Children’s Theater Series and “My First Musical” program, respectively.

All this may get younger derrieres in the seats but, to keep them there for the long-haul, perhaps it is necessary to not only introduce children to the performing arts but establish a life-long appreciation of and passion for the performing arts.

Enter Cleveland’s Talespinner Children’s Theatre, which began operations in 2011. This company develops and produces original, one-hour professional productions geared specifically for young children’s attention spans and interests, and which challenges their active imaginations.

“We engage children as creatively as possible, using all their senses,” notes Alison Garrigan, the company’s executive artistic director. “And,” she adds, “we make sure that there is something for every child of every age level, and adults too. If adults aren’t attending or if they aren’t entertained, their children will certainly pick up on this.”

Talespinner strives to give children ownership of the show they see and make each performance a unique and personal experience. “So we ask children in the audience to provide sound effects or invite them to help a character solve a problem, to talk to the actors, and become a part of the story and the storytelling,” says Garrigan. “We try to get children to color outside the lines,” which they do with little provocation.

This will eventually lend itself to children having a better understanding of what theater is and what it can do, and it will establish expectations and provide standards with which to evaluate how well it is done. And, perhaps, such early exposure will pave the way for future patronage.

Which means that the theater of the future will need to be accommodating.

Jordan Tannahill – author of the recently released manifesto “Theatre of the Unimpressed” (Coach House Books) – argues that it’s the “theatrical realism that has become so ubiquitous in regional theaters that is keeping young people away.”

He proposes that, in addition to their providing traditional and classic works, theaters dismantle the status quo of artistic thought by offering a more appropriate form of storytelling for those raised on the fragmented narratives of YouTube and Vine loops and the participant-observation of videogames.

In short, if theaters want to draw tomorrow’s adults it needs to embrace Talespinner’s strategy for attracting and engaging today’s children: The creation of theater that is wildly innovative and interactive, multi-sensory and risk-taking, and which encourages us to color outside the lines.

The next Talespinner Children’s Theatre production is “Hook & Smee” by T. Paul Lowry, which runs from Nov. 26 – Dec. 18. Go to talespinnerchildrenstheatre.org.


In his "What Were They Thinking" series, entertainment writer Bob Abelman takes a closer look at local artists, their work and other issues of interest.  To read more of Bob's columns, visit cjn.org/Abelman.

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