RE: Toronto Star’s “Too white, too old, too well-to-do: why Toronto theatre companies need to appeal to broader audiences”

As the host and producer of the Canadian theatre podcast, Stageworthy, I have thought a lot about theatre and its future. In addition to regular interviews, I’ve had round table discussions about the question of disappearing audiences, neurodiversity and mental health, how we don’t talk about emotional bleed in the theatre, and how that affects our lives outside the industry, and more. And in countless conversations I’ve talked about issues like this with artists from across Canada.

Recently, The Toronto Star published an article entitled Too white, too old, too well-to-do: why Toronto theatre companies need to appeal to broader audiences, and I entirely missed it until my friend Adrianna pointed it out to me. I’m not the only one. The article doesn’t even seem to have made it into the newspaper’s Twitter feed, but if you care about Canadian theatre, you should give it a read.

The article talks about the declining audience, how audiences are getting older, subscriptions are declining, and how attempts to grow audiences are meeting with varying levels of success. Another topic the article examines is attempts to diversify the audience and bring in younger audience members with discounted tickets.

Discounted tickets are a great idea, but it presupposes that the primary factor that is keeping younger audience members away from the theatre is the price. And while that may be partially true, it isn’t the whole story. Let’s face it. The younger potential audience is happy to spend money on specific experiences; whether it’s going to a concert, or one of the many immersive experiences (from Van Gogh to Disney), there’s a willingness to pay. But they have to get something out of it. One of the things they get from concerts, immersive experiences or other events, is the opportunity to get a photo that says “I was here”, and I think that’s important, but even more important is the experience itself.

Audiences want experiences. They are willing to pay for experiences. And theatre offers great experiences, so why aren’t new or younger audiences coming? Could it be that we haven’t done a great job of advertising the experience? Those of us who go to the theatre regularly already know how amazing the experience of theatre can be, but those who aren’t regular theatregoers, how can they possibly know if we don’t tell them?

Additionally, for the average person, the only theatre they know is those big-budget shows that come from Broadway or London’s West End, whether imported by a private producer like Mirvish or as part of a touring production at another large theatre. To them, they think of theatre as an expensive prospect, costing over $50 a ticket, possibly more, which adds up when you’re probably taking at least one other person. BUT REMEMBER: We know people are willing to spend at least $50 for a ticket to an immersive experience, a concert or some other event. So what is the difference? A lot of theatre experiences outside of those big-budget imports cost significantly less. So what is missing? What is the difference?

Start with the least important: What opportunities does the audience have to say “I was here?” Is there a good spot for a photo op? A selfie spot? Something interesting before the show starts for someone to share on Instagram? It’s such a little thing, but would the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms exhibition at Toronto’s AGO have been such a blockbuster without people sharing their experiences in the rooms on social media? It might have done well, but those social posts certainly pushed it into one of the most successful special exhibitions at the AGO since (perhaps) the King Tut exhibit in 2009. The social posts from Infinity Rooms made people who wouldn’t normally spend time at the AGO make visiting a priority, just so they could experience what was shown in the social posts. Armed with that information, as a theatre producer, I would certainly be asking what I could give to my audience that they might want to photograph and share online. What could they share that would make others need to experience what their friends are experiencing?

The next most important thing is changing how we talk about theatre. A lot of times when theatre creators talk about the plays being produced, they are gearing their message to an audience that is already predisposed to go to the theatre. The primary information provided is the title of the show, the playwright, and perhaps a little blurb about the show, which is fine for an audience that is already likely to see the show: the audience that already goes to the theatre on the regular. But for those potential audience members who aren’t regular theatregoers, what does that tell them? Very little. It certainly doesn’t give them an idea as to whether they will like the play or the experience, and that’s an important oversight. Why would someone spend money on something when they don’t have any idea if they are going to like it? Those immersive events, use photos and videos to entice people to spend money. Hollywood movies use trailers to give the feel of the film and what it might be like to see it. Most people wouldn’t go to a movie without having some idea of what it’s about and if they might enjoy it. Why do we expect them to do that with theatre? Theatres need to borrow from movies, in this way. If a theatre is going to bring in new audience members, it needs to change how it advertises and how it talks about the plays it produces. There’s no need to be precious about it, we need to tell our potential audience more about what they are going to experience.

But more than just how we talk about it, the programming needs to change too. If new audiences aren’t coming to the theatre, despite changes to the way we talk about it, then perhaps we need to change the plays that are programmed. Because if a theatre is still programming plays for their existing subscribers only, then I don’t know if that theatre has a future. The article which started this whole train of thought notes that the audiences that are going to the theatre now, are old, white and rich. But to be a little crass, that’s an audience that won’t last forever. What will we do when no new subscribers or regular theatregoers have taken their place? The only way forward, the only way to survive, is to program for the future.

But I understand that’s a risk theatres don’t want to alienate the audience they already have in favour of one that hasn’t shown up yet. With that as a concern, it’s understandable why some theatres would rather play it safe and stick with what they (and their audience) know. After all, some of the existing audience may be vocal about the change. They may complain. They might be in a minority, but it will be hard to know since they may make a lot of noise. One only has to look at one of the top comments on the article to see this:

Theatre companies that want to stay solvent need backsides in seats. White, old and well-to-do should be a target audience. As I fall into all three categories, should my patronage be unwelcome I’m quite content to spend my money elsewhere and watch them go broke.

Comment on the article

This commenter doesn’t want the theatre to change. They want – no – they demand to be catered to. And should their favourite theatre try to bring in a newer audience, they take that as a sign that they are unwelcome. They’d rather the theatre go away than have it cater to someone other than them. If this commenter is indicative of the current audience, then the theatre they frequent will certainly face growing pains with any attempt to change.

With the potential of an outcry like this, is it any wonder that a lot of theatres feel that they need to cater to the audience they have, at the expense of the audience they could have?

There is no question that there will be pushback. Both with a change to the programming to appeal to new audience members, but also to change the way theatre is advertised. The above commenter is just one example. There will be those who dislike any change to the theatres they frequent and may look sideways at new audience members. They are likely in the minority, but they will make a lot of noise, and their noise will be hard to ignore. But those of us who love the theatre want it to thrive, we want new audience members because, without them, there’s no future for the medium outside of the big-budget musicals and plays produced by the large producers.