Thursday, November 15, 2007

Playing to a Diverse Audience

Posted by Bruce Miller

For the last couple of decades, we’ve all talked a lot about the desirability of performing for a diverse audience. In many instances, what we have meant by a “diverse audience” is one that includes a greater racial and ethnic mix. This worthy and important goal is always a major component of our planning at Barksdale and Theatre IV.

There are also other ways to build diversity. At Barksdale, we work hard to achieve economic diversity. Our many discount and needs-based ticket programs are centered on our refusal to allow lack of funds to be a roadblock to anyone who’d like to see one of our shows. We have never and will never turn anyone away based on their inability to pay.

We also have developed initiatives to increase age diversity. Barksdale Theatre Workshop consists of several efforts meant to connect us with high school and university drama enthusiasts. The Bifocals Theatre Project is a popular program designed to maintain and increase the loyalty of our senior audience. Contemporary plays like The Little Dog Laughed, Brooklyn Boy, Melissa Arctic, 5th of July, etc. have been selected each year specifically to encourage more participation from audience members in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

When considering the many ways in which an audience can include diverse individuals, one should not overlook that dividing line that separates those who experience theatre as an art form from those who appreciate theatre purely as entertainment. If you are trying to attract a relatively large audience in Richmond—and make no mistake, that's exactly what Barksdale is trying to do—you will most likely find yourself trying to appeal to both camps.

Our budgets rely on selling six to ten thousand tickets to each production. Looking at the big picture, Barksdale and Theatre IV need to sell $70,000 worth of tickets and tour shows every week in order to make ends meet. When performing for audiences of this size, we know that some ticket buyers will come with a sophisticated and knowledgeable approach to theatre, and others will come for a night on the town.

Yes, I know of the instances when great art and great entertainment are found in the same show. Those are the plays and productions we cherish and cheer. I also know of the great many plays that are more likely to appeal to the “challenge and thrill me” crowd than to their “show me a good time but don’t make me think” brothers. And vise versa.

My recent blog post about the Broadway stagehands strike made me consider anew the diversity of the audience we are building. One commenter clearly felt that it was not necessary or appropriate for me to “explain” the strike negotiations because he/she and his/her peers were “already following the news.” A couple subsequent commenters supported my efforts to report on the labor dispute, admitting that they relied on the Barksdale blog to fill them in because they made few efforts to keep up with national theatre news through other outlets.

Within the Barksdale family, we're proud to have both those who take theatre seriously and those who want to have some serious fun. We welcome and try to program to both perspectives.
Amy Berlin (pictured to the left with one-time writing partner P. Ann Bucci) rightly called me to task months ago when I awkwardly compared Barksdale’s mission to produce “the great comedies, dramas and musicals—past, present and future” to the missions of Greater Richmond’s other theatres. I don’t want to make the same mistake again.

So, without comparing any one theatre to another, I’ll simply state how proud I am that Barksdale produces plays on our Signature Season at Willow Lawn as important, diverse and artistically satisfying as The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham; Mame by Jerry Herman, Lawrence and Lee; Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies; Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage (pictured above with Adanma Onyedike and Katrinah Carol Lewis); Into the Woods by Sondheim and Lapine; The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers; Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson; Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley; The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane; and Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser.

And for those who want lighter fare, we offer our more commercial County Playhouse Season at Hanover Tavern—our “Pops Series,” if you like to use symphony nomenclature.

In coming blog posts, I’m going to give some thought to the various institutional pros and cons of trying to appeal simultaneously to those who are arts savvy and those who are entertainment enthusiasts. As always, I encourage your thoughts as well.

--Bruce Miller

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