Theater's Youth Movement ; with Subscribers Aging, Stage Companies Offer College Discounts and Free Nights

Article excerpt

On a recent Thursday night, about 45 college students were nibbling buffalo wings and chatting in a prop room at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. They had just seen a production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," the season's inaugural show. Adam Roberts, the Huntington's audience development coordinator, quieted the crowd and launched into an informal roll call.

"Do we have any [Boston University] students here?" (Cheers.)

"Northeastern?"

A voice boomed, "Go Huskies!"

The students were there as part of College Night, during which they paid the student rate of $15 to see the production, then went on a backstage tour. Many attendees had been recruited by a "College Ambassador" - students who help promote Huntington productions on their campus, a program that began in 2003.

Bringing in new audiences has become an increasing concern for theater companies with aging subscribers. Not only is the coveted 18- to 35-year-old demographic not subscribing, they aren't even a substantial slice of the single-ticket buying pie. In response, companies are developing clever methods of channeling attention toward their theaters - things like student rush, which offers tickets for reduced rates right before a show. Other theaters are taking more proactive steps, like the College Ambassador Program.

"It helps to have programs like this for people who don't have $90 to throw around on a ticket," says George Haranis, a junior majoring in business at Northeastern.

Not just for students

Developing audiences is hardly limited to targeting students. While many companies have raised prices in past years to offset decreased corporate and private donations, the Signature Theater in Manhattan, celebrating its 15th anniversary, cultivated a philanthropic partnership with Time Warner that will allow everyone to pay $15 for tickets this season. Founding artistic director James Houghton says that the only way to keep theater alive and fresh is to keep it accessible.

"This makes the theater a place for the people - all people. I see it as much as civic initiative as anything else, making it simply possible for all walks of people to afford it," Mr. …