Who goes to the theater anymore? Attending live theater performances hasn't been Americans' favorite way of spending an evening for quite some time. In 1938, when the Gallup organization first asked how American adults like to spend their evenings, "reading" and "going to the movies or theater" were the favorites. In 1960, they asked again, and "watching television" headed the list. (That's understandable - in those days both Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes had their own shows.) Gallup's March 1999 poll again asked how adults preferred to while away the evening hours (www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr990301a.asp). Once more the top activity - to no one's surprise and my personal dismay - was "watching television," at 31 percent. (Not so understandable - at the time of writing, both David Hasselhoff and Geraldo Rivera have their own shows.) "Going to the movies or theater" ranked fifth, at 11 percent - and that's with respondents asked to provide up to three different activities for the poll. If you take movies out of the equation, you might expect to find "going to live theater" somewhere near "entertaining friends or relatives," which pulled a paltry 5 percent of respondents, or "listening to music," at 4 percent. At the bottom of the list, at 3 percent, was "spending the evening on the Internet." It seems that despite all the hype about the Digital Revolution, more Americans would rather spend the evening with a remote in their hands than a mouse.
Moreover, many people go to the theater by sitting down in the den. In 1999, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (www.ce.org) reported that 20 percent of U.S. households now had some sort of home theater system - a 16 percent rise over the previous five years.
Still, those who do like the theater (and presumably never arrive late) manage to keep "Les Miz" in biz, so who are they? Since 1996, the League of American Theatres and Producers (www.broadway.org) has been tracking Broadway audiences, both in New York City and on the road. According to the League, touring Broadway shows account for over half of the industry's gross receipts. And who is most likely to see a Broadway show? A college-educated, white female, in her early to mid-40s. It isn't much different for Broadway shows on tour. In 1998, 69 percent of the audience for touring shows was female; the average age, 46; fully 88 percent of the audience was Caucasian; and two-thirds of all theatergoers had at least a college degree, and a median household income of $69,700.
Like the League of American Theatres and Producers, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) discovered that women are more likely than men to attend not just the theater but all arts events, except jazz performances and visiting "historic parks." (Fenway Park leaps to mind.) This isn't likely to change anytime soon: The League's research shows that the majority of younger theatergoers are women.
The NEA was encouraged when their 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (http://artsendow.gov) revealed that half of all adult Americans attended at least one of the following arts activities in the course of a year (in order of popularity): art museums, musical plays, straight plays, classical music concerts, jazz, ballet, and opera performances.
True, unlike the remaining activities, going to an art museum to look at dried paint isn't exactly attending a live performance - but then again, a Spalding Gray performance can feel a lot like watching paint dry. Cost, no doubt, plays a large role in the popularity of art museums relative to the theater: 53.2 percent of those surveyed said high ticket prices kept them from attending arts events overall. And where the NEA found that over 90 percent of art museums priced admission under 10 bucks, the Entertainment Marketing Letter reported that the average ticket price for live theater's 1998-1999 season was a hefty $50.30 (www.epmcom.com/eml.htm).
Another Gallup poll, released in April 2000, revealed some potential bad news for theater owners: 49 percent of women overall and 54 percent of women aged 18 to 49 own a cellular phone (www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr000426.asp). The burning question isn't how many of them will go to the theater, but how many of those who do will neglect to turn off their cell phones?