Theater's youth movement

With subscribers aging, stage companies offer college discounts and free nights.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On a recent Thursday night, about 45 college students were nibbling buffalo wings and chatting in a prop room at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. They had just seen a production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," the season's inaugural show. Adam Roberts, the Huntington's audience development coordinator, quieted the crowd and launched into an informal roll call.

"Do we have any [Boston University] students here?" (Cheers.)

"Northeastern?"

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A voice boomed, "Go Huskies!"

The students were there as part of College Night, during which they paid the student rate of $15 to see the production, then went on a backstage tour. Many attendees had been recruited by a "College Ambassador" - students who help promote Huntington productions on their campus, a program that began in 2003.

Bringing in new audiences has become an increasing concern for theater companies with aging subscribers. Not only is the coveted 18- to 35-year-old demographic not subscribing, they aren't even a substantial slice of the single-ticket buying pie. In response, companies are developing clever methods of channeling attention toward their theaters - things like student rush, which offers tickets for reduced rates right before a show. Other theaters are taking more proactive steps, like the College Ambassador Program.

"It helps to have programs like this for people who don't have $90 to throw around on a ticket," says George Haranis, a junior majoring in business at Northeastern.

Not just for students

Developing audiences is hardly limited to targeting students. While many companies have raised prices in past years to offset decreased corporate and private donations, the Signature Theater in Manhattan, celebrating its 15th anniversary, cultivated a philanthropic partnership with Time Warner that will allow everyone to pay $15 for tickets this season. Founding artistic director James Houghton says that the only way to keep theater alive and fresh is to keep it accessible.

"This makes the theater a place for the people - all people. I see it as much as civic initiative as anything else, making it simply possible for all walks of people to afford it," Mr. Houghton says. "On some level, that's a celebration of theater - and community."

According to Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, the national service organization for nonprofit theaters, TCG's extensive research has proven that perception of price - not necessarily the reality of price - is what keeps regional theaters and fringe shows out of the running when people make weekend plans. To change that impression, TCG is launching its "Theater Is Alive" initiative with a free night of theater in Philadelphia, Austin, and San Francisco on Oct. 20. More than 150 companies are offering at least 25 percent of their seats for free that evening.

The challenge goes beyond just getting people to the theater. You have to keep them there. "We're hopeful a number of new people will come back later in the season," says Mr. Cameron. "Some will go back to the theater they sampled. Others who may not have been in a while will simply say, 'I forgot what a good time I've had in the theater' or, 'It was a lovely social experience,'"

Cameron likens TCG's initiative to the "Got Milk?" campaign. In any industry, the instinct is to think competitively. But by banding together as a theater community, the aim is to act cooperatively to boost general awareness of theater.

Free night, big response

Each year, 32 million people attend nonprofit theaters, according to TCG, but companies see a deeper well of potential theatergoers out there. The free night was announced in San Francisco on Sept. 20, and within the first hour, the website received 100,000 hits, says Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area. As of the first week of October, only six of the 75 participating companies still had tickets available.

"We want to get out the message of the variety of choices they have in front of them that they aren't aware of," says Mr. Erickson.

Go to theaterisalive.com for more information about the free night of theater on Oct. 20.

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