Regional theaters cater to under-30s

NEW YORK — Everyone knows that theaters hunt for young auds — those mystical ticket buyers under 30 — like the Holy Grail. But for a handful of houses, including at least one major regional, the search may be over.

And for some companies, the search never started. Groups like Atlanta’s Out of Hand, Berkeley, Calif.’s Impact Theater and Phoenix’s Stray Cat have always focused their missions on young people. All three draw the bulk of their crowds — 70% or higher — from the under-30 set.

Though each has its own vision, the companies all work from the premise that young people are often alienated by regional theaters, which tend to focus on the tastes and wallets of middle-aged subscribers.

Impact a.d. Melissa Hillman, who was in her early 30s when she founded the company in 1996, says, “We found that the majority of theaters were doing plays about people in other stages of their lives. We wanted to show people our own age that they could find their sensibility reflected in live performance.”

Out of Hand co-a.d. Maia Knispel notes, “The younger generation can be scared off if they think they’re going to theater.” That’s why her company strives to create work that doesn’t resemble traditional legit at all.

On Sept. 23, for instance, the company’s sixth season will kick off with an unusual fund-raiser called “The Game.” Part theater piece and part gameshow, it’s a high-concept scavenger hunt that sends teams of Atlantans around the city solving challenges. Some will involve interacting with actors or performing elaborate physical stunts (think “The Amazing Race.”)

Blurring the line between theater and adventure challenge, Out of Hand will have company members rehearse the same scene until observers pick up on a clue. Another task involves participants recognizing cast members on the street in disguise.

The entry fee is $18 per person, meaning “The Game” will only net the company about $2,000. However, Knispel says, “Our 18-year-old crowd isn’t going to come to the wine and cheese hurrah at the gallery. They’ll be bored, and then they won’t come back. This is a great introduction to us, and to the theater in general.”

That general introduction could not be more important, since most agree that young folks don’t have a habit of theatergoing. Projects like “The Game” are treated as lures, hopefully making auds aware of a theater (or the theater) for the first time.

For his part, Stray Cat a.d. Ron May entices the uninitiated with plays whose subjects are daring and whose characters are young. Sixth-season opener “Falling Petals,” which runs through Sept. 23, is a serious, horror-style drama about an apocalyptic plague that mysteriously targets youngsters.

It’s no accident that the plot could be in a movie. “It doesn’t hurt to show people that theater can be as ballsy as anything else, that theater can be as exciting as a flick,” says May.

Of course, some might dismiss interactive events and horror plays as stunts that value gimmicks over art. But there are signs that these tactics teach auds to become ticket buyers. Impact, for instance, has lasted a decade by alternating classics with off-kilter programming like teen beauty-queen drama “Colorado,” which opens Sept. 21. Hillman says, “We wouldn’t have a theater if people in their 20s and 30s didn’t want to come.”

Yet for all their successes, these companies are still small-time. None has a budget over $100,000, all of the theaters’ staffers work outside jobs, and a sold-out house means roughly 90 people.

For larger regionals, the challenge is learning from the methods of smaller companies while honoring bigger budgets and older patrons.

Enter Sean Daniels, associate a.d. of Berkeley’s California Shakespeare Festival. Daniels was brought onboard with the specific task of raising the theater’s under-30 crowds, and he has done similar work for Dad’s Garage in Atlanta, Baltimore’s Center Stage and the Geva Theater in Rochester, N.Y.

Since Daniels’ arrival, Cal Shakes has increased its under-30 auds by 300%, up from 1,000 in 2004 to 3,000 in 2005. Projections suggest 6,000 whippersnappers will attend by the end of 2006.

Daniels’ initiatives include the “ambassador program,” in which the theater enlists young theatergoers of all demos to commit to bringing 10-20 friends to the show. Each production also hosts a themed “shindig night,” such as the Tiki party that will accompany the Sept. 22 performance of “As You Like It.”

Familiar methods, including reduced ticket prices and theater blogs, haven’t been ruled out.

In all cases, Daniels says it’s key for the theater to treat young auds like a unique demographic with special needs. He notes, “Because theater marketing budgets are so small, we try to come up with campaigns that will attract everyone at the same time. No other industry does that. There are multiple, affordable ways to speak to young people in their own language.”

Daniels wants these programs to get youngsters through the door once, and then he feels the art itself will keep them coming back. In fact, he believes larger regionals can attract the same crowd as companies like Out of Hand, Stray Cat or Impact.

“Young people are one of the constituencies that regional theater can be for,” he says. “It’s not like you hit some magical age and then you’re old enough to go.”

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