On Warming (Up to) Our Audiences

Last week on the Guardian’s “Noises Off,” Chris Wilkinson asked the title question “Are audiences too old?”  In the post, he rounds up the voices from the blogosphere that have been sounding off on this subject lately–many spurred by concerns raised about audience in Outrageous Fortune.

The comments Wilkinson’s post elicited are quite interesting–many of them delicious dramatic morsels themselves.  “LadyBroomstick” kicked things off with this: “Who cares about the Baby Boomers?  Many of them are gonna die soon anyway.” In other words, old audiences have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, so don’t curry to them with drama, just let them slip on out.  This, of course, didn’t sit well with the many commenters who followed her.  “Jaypeebee” replied, “how ignorant.  We’re all going to die ‘soon.'”  Beyond age, experience, class, economics, and free time were also raised as explanations for the existing audience ‘problem’.

Half seriously and half sarcastically, I’d ask this: Are audiences too COLD?

Forget age, maybe people aren’t returning to theatres because theatres have frozen them to death.

Now, I realize most theatre spaces are kept cool because actors get hot while performing, but I freeze my bottom off nearly every time I go to a show.  If I forget to bring a sweater or jacket, I’m done for, curtains.  Then, my encroaching hypothermia distracts me from the performance because I’m wrapped up in thinking about the hot food I’m going to eat and the hot beverages I’m going to drink when I leave the theatre, along with the heat in my car, and my warm bed.  Barring older menopausal women, most old(er) people I know don’t like to be too cold.  I really have heard folks at intermissions, complaining, teeth clattering, about how c-c-c-c-c-c old they are.

So here’s a suggestion for theatres: The Snuggie.

Don’t ask why: Ask why not.

Better yet, just try it.

While the money isn’t always (or ever) there for it, maybe theatres should do more to entice audiences into shows and to make them more comfortable when they get there.  Remember how much better airplane food and amenities used to be (yes, in just Coach, not even First Class)? Has the same thing happened in the theatre?  Find a local caterer, better yet, a new one trying to build a reputation, and have them sell inexpensive hot hors d’oeuvres plates before the show and/or during intermission.  Christ, sell Campbell’s soup on the go. That would make me happy.  I don’t know.

On Warming Audiences to Each Other

Here’s another thought.  Remember Grandparents’ Day at school? (I do because I never had a grandparent there, but that’s my own issue, anyway…) What if theatres tried to market some shows to pairings of old and young, kind of like Grandparents’ Day?  And then, even if there wasn’t a talk back that encouraged the age diverse audience to share responses to the show, on the way home the disparate generations could do it themselves.

And here’s another. We do all sorts of against type casting these days, particularly with race and gender, but what about with age? (On purpose this time, not just due to lack of casting resources.)  Since this could be too risky for a full production, what about some (staged) readings in which young(er) people take on older parts and in which old(er) people take on younger parts? After each play, the generations could share what it felt like literally to walk in the shoes of someone older or younger, and perhaps this would open up positive cross-generational dialogue and give theatre makers more insight into their audiences.

You could call it: “Don’t act your age.”

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One Response to “On Warming (Up to) Our Audiences”
  1. CL Jahn says:

    Theatre tempature is not so much keeping the actors comfortable, although of course that is a factor. You can also factor in all the electronic gear that has to be kept within a certain range.

    But the real problem is the dynamic nature of warm bodies, hot lights, and physics. HVAC units can only lower the temperature a few degrees at a pass, and it takes a certain amount of time to move all the air through the units to be cooled down. In most cases, this poses no problem, because in most places the variables don’t change very much; people come and go from a mall, for example, but at any given point in time it’s about the same number.
    But in theatre, we take a room at a set temperature, then add hundreds of people all at once. The HVAC struggles to bring the room back to comfortable, and then we turn on several hundred miniature ovens – the lights, each one blasting at 1000 watts.

    So the theory is, start the room cold, and it should warm up to comfortable.

    Which brings in the last variable; placement of the temperature sensors. Typically, you have one in the air return to read the temperature of the incoming air. Which would be fine, if it weren’t for the super-heated air from the lights. It can be 60 degrees at the seat level, and 89 degrees at the ceiling. The system only has the higher temperature to go on, and cools accordingly.

    The trick is to place several sensors and average the temperature, but few HVAC contractors understand how theatres work, and few theatre managers know to ask for the additional sensors.

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