What Audience Engagement Means…and What It Shouldn’t Mean (Ageism)

Anti-elderly billboard in Slings & Arrows, satirizing ageism in the theater (stAgeism)
Anti-elderly billboard in Slings & Arrows, satirizing ageism in the theater. (The caption reads: “Don’t Bother.”)

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.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

5 thoughts on “What Audience Engagement Means…and What It Shouldn’t Mean (Ageism)

  1. Just in case readers don’t make the connection– I’m the one who wrote the article discussed above, and I couldn’t agree more with Jonathan. We fetishize younger audiences and discount older ones. I understand why we do it– big budget theatre needs to cultivate younger audiences now if it’s going to survive in the future, so its concerns have focused the national conversation there. It already has older audiences– by the bucketful– so they’re being ignored and taken for granted. And while big budget theatre undeniably programs for them still and caters to their tastes, that audience is, in the national conversation, considered worthless. It’s a strange dynamic– every corner of big budget theatre caters to the older, (demographically) wealthier crowd, but we talk about that audience in the national conversation as if they’re a pile of dead fish.

    I was asked to write about issues of “audience engagement,” which we use as code for “bringing in a younger, more diverse demographic,” so that’s what I wrote about. It actually crossed my mind to put something like the above in the article, but I didn’t have the guts to do it– the value of a younger audience and the lack of value of an older audience is so deeply ingrained in our industry that I couldn’t face being called out for saying that in addition to everything I was already saying. Ha.

    Thanks for writing this– it’s an issue we should be considering.

      1. I’m adding below some of the comments from Melissa’s Facebook page:

        Rachel Hockett Melissa, thank you for responding so positively to this food for thought. I find it curious that Arthur Bicknell’s new play, *Dotty,* which features three women (one 60-ish, and the other two 80+) is automatically referred to theaters run by (and presumably geared toward) older (60+) people. We encounter this ageism in many ways–both in and out of theater–some of which are overt, but many more of which are insidiously unconscious.
        12 hrs · Like · 1

        Robert Neblett Why does the author end with “When do we begin this conversation?” I thought that’s exactly what you were doing. Is your piece a “pre-conversation”? I certainly don’t think you were excusing ageism. I think you were simply describing the state of affairs. And I think you, of all people, are not equating diversity with older patrons, especially in the work you do. But I defy this author to go to a fundraiser gala at the Goodman Theatre or Berkeley Rep or Roundabout Theatre Company and tell me the majority of people there are in their 30s-40s.

        When I saw HEDWIG Off-Broadway in 1998, the audience was full of “blue-haired old ladies” and they LOVED it. They all sang along with “Wig in a Box” and raised up their hands at the end. That moment will always be with me because it shows no matter how odd, how obscure, how “young” a show is, if it is GOOD, it can find an audience that defies all expectations (it doesn’t always but it can).
        11 hrs · Edited · Like · 4

        Rachel Hockett I would expect an astute artist/observer like you to be keenly aware of the issue, and of course you are.
        12 hrs · Like · 2

        Melissa Hillman Robert: Absolutely. You’re so right. At Impact, one of my favorite audiences is the Rossmoor Shakespeare Society– a group of retirees who are Shakespeare fans. They know exactly what they’re seeing, they know why I made the decisions I did, they’ve seen 100 different versions of each play. When one of the Rossmoor people says I nailed it, I know I truly did. If they didn’t understand something, it’s because I wasn’t clear, not because they’re too old to get it– there are 80 year olds in that group who are hipper than I could ever hope to be.

        I think we discount the value of older audience in the national conversation though. Right now, we talk about the predominant theatre audience, which is mostly women over 50, as a catastrophe rather than a particular demographic.
        11 hrs · Like · 6

        Julián Mesri Older isn’t the problem. The homogeneity of rich white people theater is (which is an education issue along with a class issue)
        11 hrs · Like · 2

        Madeline Puccioni Older (women) playwrights do have to work harder and smarter to get some recognition and credibility. I’m very lucky to be working with such brilliant young theatre people here in SF/East Bay, people who look at my work, not at my age. But it is not true everywhere.
        10 hrs · Like · 2

        Kel Munger I suspect that the difference is in serious theater goers (those who buy season packages for more than one company and/or see more than one show per month). Those audiences, because they have a broader context for theatrical experience, are going to be more open to innovation/edginess.

        It’s not coincidental that they’re also going to either have more money or be artists themselves, who sacrifice other forms of entertainment for a live theatrical experience.

        I’m already in the AARP generation, and white, and married to a woman who can afford to subsidize my theater jones.

        However, the real challenge is expanding the audience beyond the traditional demographics. Here in Sacramento, the question is how can we get young people of varied backgrounds who go to live music events twice a week to try theater once a month? The answer is in shows that appeal to that demographic and address the issues that engage them, I think–and fortunately, we’ve got some companies who do that.
        10 hrs · Like

        Melissa Hillman Julián Mesri: Agreed. But we don’t always frame the discussion in those terms, no? Or even if we do, often we disparage that group. There’s no denying that ageism and sexism are walking, often hand-in-hand, through our industry.

        Big budget theatre will bring a young white man into its highly paid fold 100 times before they will bring an older woman of color. And that’s not just acting– directing, design, all of it.

        I’ve written a lot about that wealthy white homogeneity– even in the article I just did for TCG yesterday– but we *also* need to address the ageism and sexism. They have some overlap in the Venn diagram of fuckery, but not entire overlap.
        10 hrs · Edited · Like · 1

        Julián Mesri I agree. It’s because we’re willing to bemoan the state of the art form but we are only too eager to exculpate ourselves. The second it gets too close to the art and artists and audiences we are and love, we desperately try to blame something else, easy to pinpoint, and different enough to give us peace of mind. But by willing to admit we are all part of the problem, it allows us to see its a far more nefarious issue andne intimately tied to our process pedagogies and aesthetics
        9 hrs · Edited · Like · 1

        Melissa Hillman The hard reality is that we ALL have unconscious bias. No one is free from that. We all need to be willing to do the hard work of living in the process of naming, facing, disrupting, and ultimately uprooting those biases. We’re just beginning the process of looking at that in theatre as regards women and people of color, and along the way, we’re dragging along this ageist bias– particularly an anti-older-woman bias– that permeates our culture. The disdain for older women in this culture is everywhere, and we’ve coded that into the way we talk about existing theatre audiences. In fact, it’s open in many cases.
        9 hrs · Like · 2

  2. I notice that the theaters you mention I find to be a bit “alternative” themselves, and/or out of Manhattan. The casual theatre-goer who revolves around Broadway hasn’t even heard of many of these.
    I get your point. I’ve got a two part question. Where then, did these theatres who think the old Donors only want the established, get the idea? Why are so many still “wrong?” In Philly for example, I often saw the intense focus on shows that have just left Broadway/crowd pleasing musicals. I’ve heard people complain about the donor base. What’d I miss?

    1. You missed a lot.
      1. The theaters I list ARE “alternative.” That was my point in listing them. They are said to attract a “young, diverse audience.” They DO attract a diverse audience, but not just a young one. The list was meant to illustrate my explicitly stated point: “Individual older theatergoers do not necessarily resist the kind of work that Melissa Hillman and others say attract a “younger, more diverse” audience.”
      2. Prejudice works in funny ways. Individuals are “pre-judged” on the basis of one aspect of their being. Why do you assume that it is the age of these “old Donors” that determines their taste — and that ALL people of that age have the same taste?
      Do I really need to resort to analogy to point out the casual bigotry underlying your questions? Your questions are like asking: Why are African-Americans locked up if they’re not criminals?

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