Theaters Eye Singles for Boost
Nov. 25, 1997
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ The curtain rises on another Saturday night.
Singles contemplate empty date books. Theaters lament empty seats.
Could it be a marriage of interests? Some marketers think so.
Regional theaters across the country are targeting singles in an effort to replace aging audiences with new ones. Special subscription series include dinners, lectures and cocktail hours for drama fans who don't want to sit through a show alone.
In Providence, the Trinity Repertory Company has clubs for gay and straight singles. The Roundabout Theatre in New York organizes show-related theme dinners. In Montgomery, Ala., the Alabama Shakespeare Festival holds ``Belly up to the Bard'' receptions. And at the Marin Theatre Co. near San Francisco, the Stage One program includes a reception and pre-show talk.
``It's nonthreatening, and the lecture helps take it away from a meat market kind of thing,'' said Ellie Mednick, the Marin Theatre marketing director. ``If they've met someone or not is insignificant. The theater experience is what's significant.''
Theaters have been struggling for years to compete with television, movie houses and other kinds of entertainment. Between 1991 and 1995, there was almost no increase in attendance at regional theaters, according to the Theater Communications Group, a New York-based national service organization for nonprofit theaters. About 8.7 million people annually saw the shows.
``There was a period of huge growth in the 1970s because of the rise of the regional theater movement. Then it leveled out,'' said Jennifer Dineen of the Theater Communications Group.
Those who continue to attend shows are mostly older, prompting concern that, within years, few regular theatergoers will remain. For smaller companies, some with budgets as low as $500,000 a year, singles are a lifeline to the future.
``The younger generations aren't going as much. Schools aren't taking them like they did before,'' Dineen said.''It's depressing for any type of artist.''
While many singles feel comfortable going to a movie or a museum alone, few people will go solo to see a play, said Martin Vlanco, of the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston, which is planning a singles program for next year.
``It cries out to be a shared experience. You want to reflect on it with someone. Maybe it's tough for people to come alone because of that,'' Vlanco said.
In New York, the challenge is different, said Keith Beyland of the Roundabout.
``There's so much competition among theaters,'' he said. ```Rent' is down the street and it's infinitely more attractive than a Pinter play.''
Marketers often choose a typically slow night such as a Tuesday or Wednesday to stage singles events. Preparations can be elaborate.
The Roundabout held an indoor fried chicken ``picnic'' linked to the show ``1776,'' about the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
A recent Marin Theatre lecture featured a psychologist who founded a meditation center well-known in California. About 100 people listened to the talk about the single life, spirituality and meditating, then went to see the Marin's production of ``Company,'' a Stephen Sondheim play about relationships, Mednick said.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival often draws more than 400 people to its catered dinners with themes such as ``T-shirt night,'' where partygoers wear their favorite shirt, theater spokesman Todd Humphrey said.
In Rhode Island, the Providence Performing Arts Center drew 70 people to a recent clambake and dance party, said the center's spokeswoman P.J. Prokop.
The events can cost as little as $6 above the ticket price.
Doreen Brandley, 36, of Pawtucket, R.I., said she joined the Trinity Repertory singles' group, Club Trinity, for cultural enrichment, not husband hunting.
``Having someone next to you, you can say, `Wasn't that a great first act? Wasn't that a great scene?''' said Brandley, a library business manager. ``It was nice to be with people.''
Even so, she now is engaged to someone she met at a February event.
``I wasn't looking at it as a single. I wanted to go to theater with other people, but it's hard because friends travel and sometimes relatives aren't interested,'' she said.
Roxy Moffit, of the Long Wharf Theatre of New Haven, Conn., believes the singles' events should be part of a larger survival strategy for theaters. The companies must reinvent themselves as community centers to build support among younger people, she said.
``It used to be if you build it, they will come,'' said Moffit, whose theater sponsors a ``Wharf Rats'' singles' club. ``Our mission now is to see that people have an opportunity to come into a safe and an intelligent environment. We can serve as a town hall.''