Sure, you can find young whippersnappers watching plays, especially at houses around Little Five Points, but the folks with seniority significantly dominate theaters' subscriber base. According to the national theater organization Theatre Communications Group, the average theater-goer is a 57-year-old woman. And play attendees are getting grayer by the minute. In 1997, a National Endowment for the Arts Research Division Report found that since 1982, arts attendance among audiences under 30 dropped from 29.1 percent to 16.7 percent, while those over 60 went from 15.5 to 22.8.
To cry "the theater audience is dying off!" overstates the case, but certainly some of the most reliable ticket-buyers will be, shall we say, otherwise engaged within a decade or two. Theaters around Atlanta and the rest of the country are focused on ways to get transfusions of new blood.
Dad's Garage artistic director Sean Daniels is emerging as a national go-to guy for attracting teens and twentysomethings. Both the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., and San Francisco's California Shakespeare Festival have hired him as an artistic associate with a mandate to attract younger audiences. Daniels sees improv comedy as being the theatrical equivalent of a "gateway drug," with its high-speed, off-the-cuff humor getting younger people interested in live performance.
Part of the reason why theaters like Dad's Garage and Actor's Express attract younger audiences is that they offer edgier, more provocative programming than, say Roswell's Georgia Ensemble Theatre or Duluth's Aurora Theatre. But I have a hunch that the appeal live theater has to senior citizens also has a lot to do with the strengths and limitations of the medium itself.
Movies aren't called "motion pictures" for nothing, since the form provides a window to all sorts of dynamic action and far-flung places. That's why the "road movie" formula retains such popularity and short attention spans get rewarded.
But theater often needs to make do with a handful of actors and as simple a set as possible, often representing a fixed location. If movies find drama in doing, theater can find conflict in remembrance, reflection and regret. Plays benefit by having characters with rich histories, who may be haunted by past events or grow to question long-held beliefs or relationships. And these can be brought to life with older, seasoned characters much more easily than with young ones. A movie can put you on a battlefield, but a play would be much more powerful at putting you in a veteran's hospital.
Even light fare like On Golden Pond and I'm Not Rappaport includes disquieting themes about the dying of the light, and memory plays like Albee's Three Tall Women and Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" prove acute and unsettling. There's no shortage of theatrical material about headstrong young Romeos, of course, but as dramatic subjects, the King Lears have the edge.
And since the Baby Boomers aren't getting any younger, they're bound to take notice.
Matches Made in Heaven
Two upcoming shows promise ideal match-ups of performer and subject. Theatre Gael's staged reading of A Confederacy of Dunces, Nov. 21-22 at Piedmont Park Community Center casts Al Stilo as the hilariously antiheroic Ignatius J. Reilly. Stilo may be the only local actor with the heft, voice and body hair to flesh out John Kennedy Toole's slovenly, overbearing intellectual, who comes across like the missing link between Shakespeare's Falstaff and "The Simpsons'" Comic Book Guy.
Further out but even more fascinating is the Center for Puppetry Arts' Avanti Da Vinci! Or The Secret Adventures of Leonardo Da Vinci, planned for next fall. The show imagines Da Vinci using his flying machine and other inventions from his famed notebooks to battle Renaissance-era evil doers. The center's associate artistic director, Jon Ludwig, and resident puppet designer (and creator of puppet punk band Clobber), Jason Hines, received a $30,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Multi-Arts Production Fund to develop the play. Ludwig's overdue to present a new show that appeals to older audiences, and Leonardo Da Vinci is a historical figure no less inventive than the puppeteer.