Theaters get 'em while they're young

Kids are offered special ticket deals and other perks to help turn them into lifelong fans of the theater.

For Rebecca Abrams, seeing the Broadway musical "Movin' Out" added fuel to her passion for theater. The sixth-grader from Yonkers, N.Y., often asks her parents to buy tickets, and during the month when Broadway offers free admission for kids accompanied by paying adults, her folks oblige her.

"I like listening to the music and seeing all the people acting," she says during intermission. The show incorporates Billy Joel songs with Twyla Tharp's choreography. "I like the atmosphere."

Kids' Night on Broadway expanded to four nights for the first time this year, thanks to demand from families. The promotion - which runs from the end of January to mid-February - guarantees that for consecutive Tuesday nights there will be more young people heading for "Wicked" or "Hairspray" or "Little Women." But it also moves the theater community closer to its goal of building the next generation of audiences.

That's a major concern to those involved in the performing arts across the United States, as cuts in funding for arts education have left voids that nonprofit and other groups are trying to fill. Amid some signs that more young people are coming to Broadway shows, those who are part of the arts community in places from Manhattan to California are trying new ways to stimulate interest in live theater. Many are focused on content and exposure as ways of reaching younger audiences.

"The movement is more toward producing material that will appeal to a wider age range," says Margo Lion, a "Hairspray" producer whose next project is a stage version of "The Wedding Singer." "Our job is to make sure that this population is exposed as much as we can to the experience of going to the theater."

Family fare has taken off on Broadway (think "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast"), and a survey from the League of American Theaters and Producers shows that the number of kids filling seats is up slightly. In the 2003-2004 season, the league reports that nearly 1.3 million kids under 18 attended shows, the second highest turnout in more than 20 years (the highest was in 2000-01 season).

Jed Bernstein, president of the league, says that reaching kids when they're young is key. Studies show that people who were taken to the theater as children are more likely to attend in later life. He would like to see theater companies "avoid some of the audience-development challenges that ... modern dance and classical music are facing, where the audiences are graying and not being renewed."

But theater in New York and elsewhere has more competition today - from DVDs, the Internet, video games - than it did decades ago when the stage held more of the pop-culture spotlight and Broadway show tunes were hits across the country.

Offering contemporary experimental fare that attracts younger crowds is often difficult for theaters, which risk alienating their core audiences. When they do produce works with ideas that appeal to hip audiences, sometimes the problem is in the marketing. Broadway, for example, is still "antediluvian" when it comes to getting the word out, but it is utilizing the Internet more, Ms. Lion says. Still, the 20-something crowd isn't always getting the message from theaters in general, particularly in New York.

"There's plenty of good theater out there, but it's just not being marketed correctly to the right demographic," says Erica Livingston, herself a young festival producer who targets 21- to 35-year-olds. "Those are the next theatergoers. Those are the people [who] are going to start subscribing to things in 10 years when they're making the salary."

Last November, she and two friends took a different approach to promoting theater to that age group. Running for three weeks in Manhattan, their multimedia festival, The Fall Collection, combined short plays with films and live music in one night of entertainment. Their "guerrilla" marketing, as Ms. Livingston calls it, included offering temporary tattoos to people waiting in line for other events.

When they first started coming up with the idea for The Fall Collection, they wanted people to get as excited about theater as they did about a film or a rock concert. They wanted to know why friends couldn't feel "as excited about [theater] as you do when you have tickets to Radiohead at Madison Square Garden?"

Much of that enthusiasm may go back to theater being a part of a person's entertainment mix from childhood, which is why school-age children are a priority. In Costa Mesa, Calif., for example, the Orange County Performing Arts Center will launch an arts-integration program this fall called ArtsConnect, which will begin in the first grade at a handful of schools. Teachers are trained to use the arts for teaching core academic subjects, but students will also learn the history of arts disciplines.

"We've always had a strong outreach program into schools," says Nancy Warzer-Brady, the center's director of education. "The rationale behind that is to build future audiences, and to demonstrate the positive impact that the arts have on academic achievement and social behavioral development."

Theater executives hope that in addition to schools and arts groups, parents will also help foster interest in the theater by taking their kids. Moms and dads often recognize the value of the theater experience, but say the cost can be prohibitive. Broadway tickets, for example, can run as high as $100, with an average of about $60. Even $25 tickets to "children's theater" can set a family of four back $100.

"To understand your place in the world, and the world around you, you need arts and you need theater," says Mona Freidin, Rebecca's mother. "Unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive for us to expose the kids as much as we want to. It's just too expensive."

Some arts groups are making sure parents get a break. One program for families in Nebraska was done in conjunction with the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

Sixty eighth graders from a variety of economic backgrounds were brought in to learn the choreography and music to "Dancing Queen" from "Momma Mia!," which they then performed for their families before attending a touring performance of the show.

The center was able to reduce tickets from $50 to just $5. The students also got to rub elbows with the cast.

"We've had so much success with this," says Laura Kendall of the Lied Center. "To stay in business, it's important for us to get kids aware of performing arts, live art. Just being there in the theater and desiring that experience is something you have to cultivate for lifelong arts participation."

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