Melissa Hillman has written a new essay, The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement, that is both inspiring and infuriating.
One of the smartest theater writers on the Internet, Hillman is the artistic director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley, and normally blogs as Bitter Gertrude, but this essay is part of Theatre Communications Group’s “Audience (R)Evolution” series.
Hillman first points out that “audience engagement” has no clear definition, meaning different things to different people. This won me over right away, since so much theater jargon is ambiguous. Indeed, at TEDxBroadway, Leslie Koch of Governors Island suggested eliminating the phrase “audience engagement” from our vocabulary. “Everyone talks about engagement but only consultants use the word ‘engagement.’ Real humans/audiences don’t use it, unless they have a ring on their finger, so you shouldn’t either.”
In her new essay, Hillman then goes on: “The only thing on which we all seem to agree is that it’s tied so strongly to attracting young, diverse audiences that it’s essentially now code for that.” But, she adds, when people talk about the inability to attract such audiences, they are leaving out an important fact: Such audiences are attending the “vibrant, thriving indie scene” that exists “in most American urban centers” — theaters that are too small and too poor to be included in the statistics.
The solution for any theater in getting more diverse audiences, she writes, is basic: “Tell the stories that audience wants to hear, all the time, charge realistic prices, and create a welcoming environment—one that truly values them rather than fetishizes them but otherwise treats them as unimportant.”
So far, so good.
Then there is this passage, which prompted me at the beginning to nod and at the finish to shake my head:
“The indie scene is dominated by women directors, and is much younger and more diverse than big budget theatre. As soon as theatre gets to a certain budget level, the women and people of color both backstage and onstage become much more scarce, and the audiences—and the programming– get whiter and older.”
She mentions “older” four more times:
“…older, well-heeled donors..”
“…the older, whiter community upon which [big-budget theaters are] inextricably financially dependent…”
and twice, “that older, white demographic.”
Here it is, yet another example of what I’ve called stAgeism: Anti-Elderly Attitudes In The Theater. Why must advocates for “diversity” (another word that has different meaning for different people) present older audiences as the enemy? As I’ve tried to point out on numerous occasions:
1. “Older” doesn’t necessarily mean “whiter” — every ethnic and racial group has its own elderly. It also doesn’t necessarily mean “well-heeled,” nor does it exclude women. (Why is the gender parity of audiences not celebrated?)
2. Individual older theatergoers do not necessarily resist the kind of work that Melissa Hillman and others say attract a “younger, more diverse” audience. Ask people like Nella Vera, the director of marketing and communications for Theater for a New Audience (whose new home is the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn), and she will tell you that older audience members tend to be more open to new work.
As I wrote to Seth Rozin of Interact Theatre Company of Philadelphia, who in an otherwise similarly praiseworthy article, included what I considered a similarly dismissive passage towards older people, saying they eschew “riskier” work:
Let’s be specific. What I know is NYC theater. When I attend shows by the Living Theater; at BAM; by the Civilians; at The Flea; at St. Ann’s Warehouse (all theaters/theater companies that do new work often at the cutting edge) or at theaters like Repertorial Espanol or Abrons Arts Center (theaters that do work about different cultures often in languages other than English) I observe an audience made up of a mix of ages. It’s true that I’ve noticed the audiences seem to skew younger at The Brick, Bushwick Starr, and the Kraine, but is that because the art in these places is “riskier” or because they are newer and the accommodations less convenient and/or more physically uncomfortable?
As playwright Keith Josef Adkins, the artistic director of New Black Fest, has written: “I have heard dismissive and insensitive blanket remarks about the 60 and over crowd. In my observation, there is a fear and a frustration that a large portion of that demographic is not interested in younger, African-American, LGBT, Latino, women and/or Asian theater practitioners. Substantiated or not… it is how many feel and what they believe about the power of the elderly in American theater. So, yes, perhaps a genuine conversation about the future of theater and the upside and downside of the 60-and-over demographic is paramount.”
When do we begin this conversation? How about now, Melissa Hillman, before you yourself become older, and feel the sting of this casual ageism.