It seems that the theatre is dying. But…

Broadway audiences 2015-2016

While the Broadway League reports a record breaking 13.3 million admissions to Broadway shows in 2015-2016, our smaller theaters struggle to keep the lights on.

63 percent of those Broadway ticket purchases were from tourists, a demographic that does not seem drawn to smaller regional and community theaters. Why not? Why don’t people from out of town want to go see local theater?

Broadway is a theatre destination, synonymous with glamorous musicals and a history of producing excellent new work from people like David Mamet and Sam Shepard. This certainly helps. Broadway doesn’t seem to be in danger of shutting down anytime soon.

But what about the regional and community theaters in the non New York markets? How do we get people coming to those shows?

What we need is more marketing!

A lot of weight is put on theater marketing. “If only one of our marketing campaigns went viral!” “This YouTube video has 5000 views but no one is coming to the show.” “Our Facebook page has 300 likes but our seats were almost empty last night. WHY?”

All the social media marketing in the world likely wont pull enough weight to put butts in every one of your seats. That doesn’t mean we should eliminate our marketing efforts.


Social media, email lists and word of mouth are still valuable in developing an audience but as much as we like to think “I just need a better marketing campaign.” marketing alone isn’t the answer.

What we really need are people that love theatre. We need people that WANT to go see plays, new works and established pieces.

A Penniless Theatre

We need people that want to put money into producing staged work.

I wrote this short article on a penniless theatre years ago. It briefly touches on what I think we need, a show business renaissance.

Not only do we need people to invest money in shows and actors but we need people to invest money in both theatre education and general education.

Arts Education is Paramount

Arts in Education builds theatre audiences and it has a whole host of other benefits, too.

Arts in Education


  • According to the Broadway League, the average age of the Broadway theatregoer, was almost 44 years old.
  • Of theatregoers over 25 years old, 80% had completed college and 40% had earned a graduate degree.

Educated people are theatregoers.

Some interesting theatregoer demographics.

While we’re talking about stats, here are some interesting demographics from the Broadway League on Broadway theatregoers:

  • Sixty-seven percent of the audiences were female.
  • Seventy-seven percent of all tickets were purchased by Caucasian theatregoers.
  • Personal recommendation was the most reported influential factor in show selection.

You can read more of these statistics in their Demographics of the Broadway Audience, 2015-2016 season report.

Where’s the interest?

A lack of theatre audience is partially caused by a lack of interest in theatre all together. It’s likely one of the most difficult challenges to overcome, too.

What can your theatre organization do to try and get the next generation interested in going to live shows, outside of the big, splashy Disney/Andrew Lloyd Webber productions that proliferate Broadway?

Disney’s The Lion King

Here are a few ideas:

  • We absolutely must create work that interests and inspires young people. This is a tall order. With YouTube, NetFlix, Nintendo and iPads the competition is stiff. For me, seeing a high school production of Peter Pan when I was fifteen inspired me to want to be an actor.
  • We have to produce engaging work. I am not saying it has to be Tony award winning material, but our work has to be good. I’ve seen a number of shows that, if I was not an actor myself, may have contributed to me not bothering to see a live show again.
  • We’re going to need some serious and repeated positive word of mouth about our shows. Social media can get the word out, and of course our social media campaigns should engage with blog/text, video, social channels etc. If people aren’t saying good things about your show, developing your audience will be very difficult.
  • Teach and inspire. From my own experience I can think of no greater way to build an audience than to teach and inspire them.

Thank you!

I like to think of this blog as a place we can all share and develop ideas that will ultimately strengthen our theatre community and help us develop audiences in the 21st century. This topic is a challenging one.

Please comment and share.

I would love to hear your thoughts on helping to build the 21st century theatre audience.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments and share this article on Facebook, Twitter or whatever fine social media channels you enjoy.




8 thoughts on “Building the 21st Century Theatre Audience

  1. There are a number of studies about engaging customers but the real trick is to create an experience that does not appear to be a weak substitute for a film or tv storytelling.
    Making a LIVE experience something that resonates has to be the goal. Broadway went through an attempt to match the technical magic of film but slowly realized that they were not advantaging their biggest asset….Theater needs to be a person to person engagement and no movie can match that. Working now in orchestral music and it is an even harder sell but again once your audience finds themselves IN the experience they are more often than not ready to return.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. I think that’s why theatre will never disappear. You just can’t get that person to person in other mediums. As an actor, I thrive when the audience is present. In empty rehearsals that spark is certainly missing. As an audience member I love that there are real people in front of me. One of my favorite things about theatre is that it is live and anything can happen!


  2. Off-Broadway and regional theaters strike me as rather conformist in their selection of works for presentation in the sense that rosters chosen appear to be engaged in proselytizing as if for approval of the PC Police, reflecting the same subject/story lines that are familiar in media stories. Yet audiences have a far wider range of interests and find such offerings (written to the “script” or the “party line,” if you will) unappealing. Calls for submissions from theater companies enumerate these “acceptable” subjects and are a reliable indicator (IMHO) of exactly the plays audiences will ignore.

    I do write to subjects that I believe timely (as well as interesting and literary), and my works are also pretty conventional within the oeuvre of titles both classic and contemporary. Also, I probably don’t submit religiously enough and try never to pay submission fees. Yet I suspect there’s an additional litmus test (or two) that I’m failing, falling just outside the conventions of “what we think people are interested in now” or (perhaps more candidly) “what we think people should be thinking now.” My guess is theater creative directors and others involved in the selection process (perennially on “hard times” psychologically because most are lucky to break even) are trying to play it safe and this is, of course, completely at odds with what we actually do know about what audiences will find exciting.

    I could say more based on my experiences developing new works (mostly for the musical stage) in Boston. Such comments might include observations about general intellectual honesty and standards of entitlement. But these may well apply only parochially in bad old Beantown, which hasn’t succeeded in getting anything going despite decades of breast beating and of expressed passion for success of locally developed work. I certainly hope the experiences I’ve had (would-be producers attempting to force writers to relinquish creative credit, e.g. — and much more) would not be endemic to the process as a whole.

    I am certain that we, as a culture, need legitimate theater now more than ever, and the perilous climate created by rapid and unpredictable change does present massive opportunity. I’m pretty sure no one on the local scene is on the right track as another of the best little companies around is presenting their final performances in March.

    I wish you good fortune in finding the breakthrough work that can signal the wind of change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Cassandra! I agree. Producers are often too “safe” in their choosing of material and though I can understand why, it is frustrating. It’s the same with films now. So many remakes, usually based on proven originals, but I sure as hell don’t want to see a new Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Actor and comedian Jamie Kennedy talks about that exact topic in his podcast. Lack of risk is hurting art, without a doubt!


  3. I agree with your statement about “teaching” young people to like theater. I am the head of a dance program in a boarding school. That has always been my primary goal: teach young people to love live performance. They will be the next generation of audiences and funders. Been doing this for 7 years so far…and it seems to be working. I have alumni tell me about shows they’ve been to while in college and beyond. They are staying engaged with the pulse of live theater and dance.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with much that has been already said, so I won’t re-state it and I think not only do we have to get young people interested in seeing live performance but we must do shows where they can be in the performance. We also have to remember the attention span of children and even young people is relatively short. If your theater produces several plays in a season, set aside one or two of them to be 45 minutes or less with younger actors. Our small community theater in Oregon added three 20 minute plays for children, generally adapted from fairy tales, to our 5 play season. Many of us were very skeptical that these plays would attract an audience and would be a money drain for our tight budgets. The skeptics were wrong. Each play is presented 6 times and they sell out with standing room only. Tickets are only 1.00, but the main goal is to get kids -AND their parents in the theater. They don’t make a ton of money but they pay their way. I think a professional theater in a larger city could take this general idea of shorter plays for less money and grow a younger audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot of great points, Laura! A larger theater selling far less expensive seats is an excellent idea. If you fill a 300 seat theater with $5 tickets you’re likely doing pretty darn good.

      I do a couple of fairy tale based children’s shows a year, huge cast and we sell very well. Mostly family members of young cast members. It seems a lot of people want to see kids on stage. Getting them involved is great on so many levels!

      I plan to write a post on what a new 21st century theater might look like, completely restructured.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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