if only an audience wasn’t a necessity

The Helen Hayes Organization announced their figures for dc theater in 2007. The numbers are not at all surprising, I’ve talked about it before, DC rises in the amount of work being done but the audience is not there. Slightly more surprising to me is that audience members are decreasing. It’s not just that we are fighting for the same audience members but that fewer people are coming to the theater. I keep hoping that with the increase of work we will slowly begin to increase our audience.

…2007 was the busiest year since the first tally in 1985, the Hayes group said, with 67 professional companies presenting 8,050 performances of 454 shows. That is an increase from 2006 of three companies, 402 performances and 20 shows. (These figures represent all area professional theaters, not just those eligible for Hayes Awards, but do not include attendance for the Capital Fringe Festival, which drew 19,000 people.)…

Even so, derrieres in seats numbered about 36,000 fewer in 2007, the Hayes staff reported, with 1,908,557 people attending shows. read full article.

What can be done? Obviously, there will be little decrease in the work being done, for every failing company there seem to be two more being born.  Theaters keep announcing ambitious and adventurous seasons, Fringe Festival is returning again, and the Source festival is being reborn. Large more financially stable theaters can continue making use of advertisements in the paper, online and over the radio.  The small companies cannot even afford to place a guide ad in the post.

I’ve been watching ticket sales at Forum closely as we celebrate the hit that is Judas. It is exciting to see the numbers keep going up but I notice as I scan the names, many that are familiar. Many of the names are theater folk supporting their friends and peers. We are our own audience. And it’s great, that we are willing to support each other financially. And yes, there are non-theater people buying tickets as well. There are people who read the review in the Post and decided this show would suit them. The question then becomes, how do we get them to come back?

We’ll be producing Marat/Sade this summer, a great show, a great cast, but how do we guarantee our audience will follow? I understand that this is part of the rational behind subscriptions. Yet, the subscription model just doesn’t seem to suit the future of American theater, it doesn’t seem to suit my generation, and those to follow, it doesn’t suit those used to on-demand programming and interactive video games.

Don’t get me wrong, watching subscriptions come in at Theater J every year has made me happy. Possibly because I watched the subscription base double in my time.  Everyday more envelopes arrive as people continue to make the decision to subscribe and support. It’s great knowing you are loved. But I’m still not convinced this is the model for the future. I just don’t know yet how it should work. How the dc audience should be developed so that it can fully support the amount of work that is being done. How the audiences can support without being pulled too hard financially. And how those making the work can afford to continue.

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