Ross: Theater needs to change to adapt to a new audience

Aug 30, 2023, 8:04 AM | Updated: 9:05 am

theater change audience...

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 26: Dance group Shaping Sound performs during the 'After The Curtain' show at Paramount Theatre on March 26, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)

My wife and I have been going to the theater in Seattle for 45 years. We subscribe to five theater companies because there is nothing more magical than the energy that’s released when a group of talented performers bond with a live audience.

But a lot of theater companies here and across the country are in trouble. The pre-pandemic audiences have not returned.

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In June, Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theater closed after 33 years. We lost the Empty Space Theatre, the Group Theater at the University of Washington, that little theater in Pioneer Square where, back in the 80s, Angry Housewives ran for almost seven years.

(Remember Angry Housewives? The first punk rock musicals? “Eat your BLEEP-ing cornflakes!” Anyone remember? Besides Feliks? (official historian of Seattle’s Morning News))

Anyway, when the New York Times ran an article about this trend, it unleashed a flood of comments that tell me there is more going on here than just COVID-19. It may be that for a lot of subscribers, the pandemic was a guilt-free way to get out of going to shows they were no longer enjoying.

And again and again, the reason was, ‘We are tired of being preached to.’

Theater subscribers tend to be liberal, and all about social justice, but in the hundreds of comments on the Times article, they said they were tired of seeing social justice themes, and gender and racial themes, being played onstage over and over again.

It’s hard to create a bond with the audience when the audience drives home feeling guilty.

I love live theater. I love any show that leads to a good, deep discussion on the way home. But sometimes, you just want to go out and have fun. You just want to laugh without wondering whether you should have laughed.

Part of the problem, of course, is that theater audiences, in addition to being liberal, are mostly well-off, white, and old. Yes, my hand is up, guilty on all counts.

In addition to being defensive, we’re either dying off or not as eager to drive downtown at night, especially if it’s the theatrical equivalent of a kale salad.

But at some point, you have to bond with the old and defensive audience of the present, even as you try to attract the young and pugnacious audience of the future.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Ross: Theater needs to change to adapt to a new audience