During the final performance of MusicalFare Theatre’s production of the hit musical “Rent” last Sunday, several patrons left at intermission.
A pair of women sitting next to me in the front row, vocally annoyed by the subject matter and the style of the rock-driven production, made no bones about their displeasure. Their unceremonious departure, while perplexing to drama club geeks like myself for whom “Rent” is a modern classic, was not an unusual occurrence during the run of the show.
MusicalFare founder and director Randall Kramer, though he laments the loss of any audience member, isn’t sounding the alarm. By Kramer’s estimation, he said, he’s willing to part with 5 percent of the audience for the theater’s edgier presentations because he’ll gain many more recruits.
When I perceive that people are leaving a show they blindly bought tickets for because of problems with risque subject matter like overt sexuality or adult language, I tend to get angry. My view is that if you’re offended by the notion of AIDS, or drag queens, or two men kissing, you probably should have done your research before you bought tickets for a show that contains these elements.
On the complete opposite side of the problem, however, some theater owners overreact to the complaints of a few vocal audience members who leave a show by playing it completely safe.
Neither of those reactions is the right approach, as Kramer’s even-handed 5 percent policy at MusicalFare shows.
“I see a lot of organizations that will respond to one or two or three people who are complaining rather vociferously about something or who make their feelings known. And we always need to respond to people who come to our theater, but that doesn’t mean we need to change what we’re doing,” Kramer said. “And that 5 percent figure, when you think about it, allows for a certain amount of turnover in your audience.”
At Shea’s Performing Arts Center, which has become more and more progressive over the past few years in its pursuit of younger pocketbooks, the same approach applies. Shea’s President and CEO Anthony Conte, who, like Kramer, makes a point of responding personally to audience complaints and questions, has acknowledged the importance of inviting different demographics into the theater. Shea’s presentations of shows like “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and “Avenue Q” – in which puppet-on-puppet sex figures prominently – prompted plenty of indignant walkouts. But the applause of new, younger audience members has been loud enough to drown out concerns about the people who high-tailed it to the parking lot at intermission.
At Road Less Traveled productions, it’s the same story. Co-founder Scott Behrend, against the better advice of some antiquarians in the local theater community, continues his laudable mission to bring younger and more diverse demographics into the fold.
At its heart, MusicalFare’s 5 percent approach to audience development – which incorporates risk as a matter of future survival – points to an ever-present problem in theater. If you play it safe, your audience will shrink through natural attrition. If you instead embrace calculated risk as a matter of strategy, and constantly tweak the formula, you’ll ensure your relevance to an ever-expanding group of potential theatergoers.
The old-fashioned idea that theaters should be happy with the audiences they have holds the community back from its true potential. It’s good to see places like MusicalFare, Road Less Traveled and even Shea’s proving that old idea wrong.