Finding, and keeping, a new audience

Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, sits in his office surrounded by the fruits of labors past. Tonys, Obies, Pulitzers, posters, and photographs blanket two walls. But Mr. Papp, the indefatigable director of the country's largest noncommercial theater, is looking squarely to the future. ``The [theater] industry is suffering. If a new audience is not found, it will totter.'' Across town, producer Fred Zollo stares out of his office window at a sign for recording tape, flashing the ``Future in Sound and Pictures.'' ``We have lost the theatergoing habit,'' Mr. Zollo says slowly. ``People aren't interested in it anymore. We have to start over with kids.''

In a series of interviews with directors, producers, performers, and playwrights, the most frequently voiced concern was that of finding and keeping a new theater audience. Whether that concern is attributed to escalating ticket prices, a lack of hit plays, the impact of film and television, or the influence of theater critics, industry leaders agree that discovering a new audience is more crucial to the future of American theater than keeping funding sources, attracting new artists, or updating the art form.

``It is one of the great crises in American theater,'' says Peter Sellars, artistic director of the National Theater in Washington. ``Most people attending theater today don't want to be there, or they are there for the wrong reasons.''

Whether that crisis takes the form of continuing declines in Broadway attendance or aging subscribers at the regional theaters, industry leaders are responding with plans to boost and broaden their audience. On Broadway, the Theater Development Fund sponsors discount and subsidized ticket programs. The fund has made additional plans to introduce theater to New York schoolchildren. An informal network of younger Broadway and Off Broadway producers has been formed to boost both audiences and the industry's image.

In the nonprofit arena, nearly every regional theater has begun community outreach, subscriber development, and, in many cases, children's theater programs. Some artistic directors are taking even more drastic measures. In his first season at the National Theater, Mr. Sellars cut ticket prices by half and started a regular free theater program. William Bushnell, producing director of the new Los Angeles Theater Center, has begun what must surely be a first in theater circles -- free child care.

In addition to the efforts of individual theaters, national, state, and city programs have been proposed to encourage future audiences from the ranks of school children. The Massachusetts legislature has proposed a $1 million statewide audience-development program that would send more than 200,000 children to theater, opera, dance, and other performances. The plan could serve as a model for a similar proposal in New York.

Meanwhile, Mr. Papp recently began a new minority repertory company as part of a pilot program to introduce Shakespeare to some 10,000 schoolchildren around the city. An expanded version of the plan, dependent upon a yet-to-be-approved city contribution of $1 million, would reach 200,000 children.

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