Someone asked me recently if I paid attention to the audiences who see my plays. “Yes,” I said, “I watch them very closely.” I hear every cough, see every lit phone screen. I, too, pay attention to the fact that many have gone gray, as the Globe’s Don Aucoin wrote last week. So it’s sheer delight if I see more than a few audience members who are youthful — that is, under 45 — and it’s next to ecstasy if I see some who are “of color.” When I sit there hoping an audience will respond to my words, any form of “other” is better than none at all.
It’s imperative to discuss audience diversity, but it’s uncomfortable to discuss who regularly goes to the theater and how that affects the art form — that is, what gets chosen for a season and what kinds of people we see gracing the stage to perform those choices.
I write quite a bit about the intersection of race and class and belonging and what happens when belonging is denied. Not so long ago I sat in one of my plays, watching the people in the row in front of me. Their hair was indeed a little gray, but just as noteworthy was their attire. The men had heavy, large-faced watches and well-made sport coats. The women had purses that might have cost three times my family’s usual grocery bill. They each looked healthy — the kind of healthy you get when you have health insurance. This country had kept its promise to them. So how would they react to a play about people whose relationship to that promise is more ambiguous than their own?
“What’d you think?” oneasked her husband afterward. A Lexus “L” flashed from his key ring. “Eh,” he replied. In his hand was the program, open to my picture. Did he know I was sitting behind him? His displeasure was not malicious or callous; it was dismissive. Why go traipsing through the unfortunate experiences of others? If this play about have-nots were to implicate him in the not-having, it might ruin the effects of the perfectly lovely Malbec he’d had with dinner.
OK, I don’t know which wine he had with dinner. But I have observed that older individuals who have attended plays for many years show a sense of entitlement that other types of audience members simply do not have. Because older theater goers’ subscriptions and full-price ticket sales help sustain the work shown, their preferences have enormous weight. It’s there before the lights dim, and it grows stronger after they come back up, when the comment cards are filled out.
Today’s crowds have grown comfortable.
Playwrights know this. I know this very well. I often use elements that put my writing in the camp of “other,” not just in terms of content, but also in terms of storytelling — nonlinear structure and repetition that may not resonate with traditional audiences. So when a theater approaches me to work with it, I look up past seasons to get a feel for what its audiences are used to, and will sometimes choose the form of my play accordingly. I don’t alter my voice, but I have learned to do my homework.
In the same way, audience sentiments influence what a theater chooses to present. It cannot always leave its full-paying audiences saying, “Eh.” It must present work that largely reaffirms the status quo, even if it has a shelf full of very good plays that do more to shake things up. And most theaters do have those kinds of plays on their shelves, waiting.
I have worked with many theaters that operate less cautiously. Even then, the audiences still skew older. Perhaps younger generations feel they will never get that gold watch, and just aren’t interested in theater that upholds what they’ve come to experience as a broken promise. Yet they lack influence over what gets included in a season. As the American middle class disappears, maybe younger generations just aren’t willing to pay more than they can afford to listen to plays that exclude them.
Audiences have not only grown gray; they’ve grown comfortable. There are many stories waiting to be told but will not be on a broad scale — until our audiences are willing to give them more than an “Eh” as they check their watches and hold tight those gorgeous purse strings.