Thursday, January 21, 2010

Arts Reporting: Audience Demographics and 'Outrageous Fortune'

ALT isn't going to sail into the theatre blogosphere's discussion of Outrageous Fortune, The Life and Times of the American Play, the book by Todd London and Ben Pesner that turns into narrative the surveys and interviews of American theatre directors over the last decade or so.

One brief taste of the debate is the headline used by Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune: 'Outrageous Fortune': Playwright book full of whine and din.

My eye was caught, however, by a discussion between Scott Walters with his "Theatre Ideas" blog and Isaac Butler, who writes at his blog "Parabasis." Subject: whether or not the mostly white-haired audiences that attend most commercial theatre presentations are fuddy-duddys. (I have more than a casual interest in the topic, belonging to the middle baby-boomer generation myself and yet haunting all sorts of youthful theatre venues in Austin.)

Walters asserts that boomers were and are pioneers, while Butler recounts some focus-group experiences that suggest, on average, a different reality.

Here's Butler's January 21 post, "Outrageous Fortune 5.2: The Prof Weighs In Again!" :

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Scott Walters is not pleased about how people like him are depicted in Outrageous Fortune:

"But let's go further. Those people in your audience who are currently 60, the ones who get hammered as "conservative" and "unimaginative"? They were born in 1950, which means they were graduating from high school in 1968. Maybe you've read about 1968 (Laura Axelrod did an amazing on-line book about it): it was the year America was on fire. So these people that you write off so easily were the ones who were protesting the Vietnam War. They were the ones who were putting their lives on the line for civil rights. They were the ones who were leading the feminist movement. These were radicals, folks, a generation that was committed to questioning the status quo. Do you really think that somehow they have lost that mentality as they've aged? Here's a news flash: I got MORE radical the older I got. And here's part 2 of that same news flash: that isn't uncommon. The most radical thinkers I know are over fifty.

"And that's actually the real problem with this audience: we are smart enough to know BS when we see it. You know why middle-aged, white-haired, middle-class spectators like me aren't rushing out to buy tickets to many new plays? It isn't because you're too "out there," too "radical" for us to appreciate; it's because what you write about is stuff we've already lived through and moved past. We've been to the puppet show and we've seen all the strings. Most of you have little to say that we haven't heard before, and thought about before, and probably lived through before. Being shocked isn't that big of a thrill anymore. Tell us something important about life. Something with some depth and complexity. Something with some heart and soul, some deep understanding."

I think, personally, it's an somewhat unfair response to an unfair critique... Not everyone white and over 60 is an aesthetically conservative, wealthy pain in the ass who doesn't really want to see good plays. My grandmother, for example (87!) is a totally awesome audience member, and her favorite bands are The Velvet Underground and The Who, and she went to the first Next Wave and enthusiastically returned many times. (She really hates puppets, though, don't get her started on puppets!)

But not everyone approximately 60 or over marched on Selma and then turned around and invented post-modernism either. There's a lot of really depressing research about quite specifically the Boomer generation and what they want to see. I met one artistic director who (a Boomer himself), realized Boomers made up his entire audience and commissioned a raft of focus group information so he could continue to build his theater. I went to his presentation of the data... What he found shocked and depressed him (exs: Boomers, by and large, dislike surprise, which is why many previews now intentionally ruin the plots of movies, Boomers are amongst the least loyal of customers and it takes very little to lose their business etc.) but he used it to turn his theater around and make it one of the largest and most successful in his state. (I hope I can dig up my notes from that meeting because whoo boy was it depressing).

Which is all just a way of saying that Scott has a good point (and says a lot of other good stuff, you should RTWT here) and he's right that there's plenty of lazy thinking to go around in Chapter 5. But, although Scott has a good point, and some really good suggestions, those thoughts on audience members didn't come out of nowhere. And people don't just not like plays because they're too smart to be fooled by them. The customer is not, in fact, always right. I'm glad Scott is giving voice to what he's giving voice to, I just think both POVs have merit (and if you think they don't, try going to a matinee at Manhattan Theatre Club).

Isaac Butler, January 21, 2010

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