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Prepared for the September 13, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.
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Season Preview: Drama
New plays by A.R. Gurney, Athol Fugard, and Arthur
Laurents, revivals of musicals by Jerry Herman, Cole Porter, Rodgers
and Hammerstein, and classics by Shakespeare, Maeterlinck, and
will all be staged by New Jersey’s professional theaters this season.
For the middle-aged core audience that regularly attends and values
theater, no hard sell is needed. Generating enthusiasm among younger
elements of the population is something else again. Call it a
For all their ambitious and earnest outreach programs for the very
young, high school, and college students, and special nights catering
to targeted business and social groups, what efforts, initiatives,
and marketing strategies does New Jersey’s theater community employ
to lure young adults into the theater and make believers of them.
What, in fact, does live theater mean to under-35s in an era when
highly visceral, electronically-charged entertainment appears to
the airwaves and competes so aggressively for attention? I talked
to a few of the marketing directors at prominent New Jersey theaters
to see how they are armed to meet this challenge.
Although Gabriel Shanks is departing as the director of marketing
at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse to assume similar duties
for Morristown’s Community Theater, a performing arts center, he
the need to attract young adults to all kinds of theaters, whether
they are focused on dramatic or concert programs. As Shanks points
out, that theater once represented a central force in people’s lives.
"It has become rarefied along with opera and dance. Today young
adults tend to look to the specific event."
Acknowledging the expense of going to the theater (a single seat at
George Street costs about $32), as opposed to the movies, or staying
home to choose among 500 television channels, Shanks, who is himself
31 years old, sees his contemporaries readily supporting plays with
themes and topics that address their lives. "Angels in
comes to mind as one such play.
"It was the first time that I had been to a theater, looked
and saw that everyone around me was young," says Shanks, citing
the long-running "Rent," and Off-Broadway’s "De La
as shows that also speak directly to young adults. Shanks regards
the plays selected for this George Street season, as having the
to bring in a whole new audience.
Among the premieres artistic director David Saint is targeting at
young adults is "The Spitfire Grill," about a relationship
between Hannah, the owner of a restaurant, and Percy, a young woman
recently released from prison, is a musical based on the movie that
developed a big following among young adults. Another play that the
theater hopes will appeal to that target group will be A.R. Gurney’s
"Human Events," in which an over-zealous British teacher tries
to revitalize the humanities department in a small New England
One of the more innovative moves at the George Street
Playhouse is the concierge service specifically designated to make
going to the theater easier for young working adults. The service
includes restaurant reservations, parking, and traffic updates. While
no figures are available, Shanks is sure more young adults are coming
since Saint arrived three years ago. "Theater must make the
work for it," says Shanks, who says the theater has just begun
online purchasing of tickets. Looking into the future, Shanks sees
scenes from the plays and songs from the musicals being downloaded
from the web, as well as increased interaction — interviews,
chats — between artists and the potential audience. Beginning
this year is a "collegiate initiative," which allows anyone
with a student ID to get a ticket for $10. Web address:
"We are in danger of losing young audiences, but I’m
says Steven Favreau, director of marketing at the Paper Mill Playhouse
in Milburn. Certainly at this theater, more than any other, where
revivals of classic operettas and popular musicals from Broadway’s
"Golden Age" are the norm, hard choices are being made.
is well aware that producing shows that are both attractive to young
adults and that keep the core "Golden Age" subscribers is
not an easy task. While no one can guarantee that by bringing a new
hip esthetic to an old show will always work, bringing in a new
director is one way to help broaden the artistic vision. This season
Mark S. Hoebee, who has demonstrated his abilities as a choreographer
and director for Paper Mill’s "Dreamgirls" and "Will
Follies," joins the permanent staff that will continue to operate
under the artistic direction of Robert Johanson. Hoebee, who was in
the Broadway cast of "Victor/Victoria," will direct that
which opens at the Paper Mill on November 1.
I asked Favreau if perhaps too many of us remain overly sentimental
about the long-standing mission of the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse,
which is to keep the great musicals alive and refreshed (with a little
time out for comedy). And why do so many young people regard theater
as somewhat archaic?
"It’s a reality that 66 percent — that’s 30,000 — of our
subscribers are retired," says Favreau. "Turning our backs
on them would be crazy." However, marketing shows to the young
adult is something Favreau says they talk about all the time. He is
particularly enthusiastic about the potential popularity of a new
subscription program (one of seven plans) called the "Date
Here the buyer purchases four passes which may be used for four shows,
or to bring four people on a single night. You also don’t have to
commit to a particular night, although Favreau says, "Come on
Friday night and you’ll see a majority of young people."
The opening of Paper Mill’s Lilac restaurant on site, which will also
be home to cabaret-style performances, is expected to draw young
before and after the shows. The web address: www.papermill.org
Seeing more and more young faces in the audience is McCarter Theater
artistic director Emily Mann’s goal. Getting more young people into
the theater is director of marketing Barbara Andrews’ task. Aside
from the increased use of mailing lists purchased from hip venues
and distributing the more pop designed literature at area bookstores,
Andrews is especially enthusiastic about McCarter’s "After-Hours
Theater Party" which she says is becoming "the hot party in
town." One night per production is set aside for the party that
includes post-show lobby entertainment, food, and theme decor. It
costs the same as a general admission ticket.
McCarter has again upgraded its website to reach a younger audience.
When the initial response to a "Youth" subscription was weak,
they changed its name to "Twenty-Five and Under." Andrews
says that with the name change backed by a promotion push, the series
went from 200 to 750 subscribers.
Like the Paper Mill Playhouse, the core audience at the McCarter
Mann’s arrival eight years ago was considerably older. This, despite
the fact that Princeton is a university town. An aggressive campaign
to attract young audiences continues. Given that students can attend
free through the university’s "Passports to the Arts" program,
Andrews reports that there has been a 175 percent increase last year
in youth passports. "Through our website, we have built a
with AOL and Culture Finder," she says, referring to the impact
that electronic newsletters have had on ticket sales. These high tech
portals to culture tell what’s happening in New Jersey, its night
life, hot restaurants, music, and theater. When a special promotion
is started, these portals will enable the viewer to directly link
to the McCarter.
When single tickets went on sale on the Web a couple
of weeks ago, 250 tickets were sold there. Last year at this time
the theater did not have website sales. Andrews now credits McCarter’s
new full-time Web producer and editor for creating links with other
arts organizations. "The increase of sales has been amazing,"
she says, "but we don’t have the software yet that can track and
tell us where the sales are coming from. We don’t have streaming video
yet, but we do have MP3 audio files to download if you want to hear
sound clips from an upcoming music event."
What the McCarter site does have for those interested in the coming
season, which features among its six shows, Lily Tomlin in "The
Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," beginning
October 17, is a link to Tomlin’s own website. Web visitors can also
access an interview with Mary Zimmerman, the adapter and director
of "The Odyssey," which opens the season on September 15 (see
related story). "We’ve come a long way in a year, and we’ve got
a long way to go," says Andrews, who sees the future of theater
depending more on the Internet where young people surf and search.
Web address is www.mccarter.org.
Also employing high technology to market traditional theater is the
New Jersey Theatre Group which publishes a weekly electronic
sponsored by Verizon. The E-News lists all the current productions,
with Web links and box office numbers for the statewide alliance of
professional theaters. E-News usually opens with a discount ticket
offer for its subscribers. To subscribe, send an E-mail to
The website is at www.njtheatregroup.org.
Elizabeth Murphy, known for her past production work at Trenton’s
Passage Theater, and more recently at the New Jersey Theater Group
where she spent four years director of development and marketing,
also specializes in new audience development. Now beginning her first
season as a producing director at Madison’s Playwrights Theater of
New Jersey, she says new audiences are still very much on her mind.
"Once young adults come to a performance at Playwrights, they
realize it is not just their grandparents’ theater," she says.
While acting and playwriting classes attract the young, who are also
encouraged to attend the readings and full productions, Murphy says
she has learned to recognize the popularity of movies as a marketing
"It’s the perception of what theater is that we are fighting
says Murphy. "Criminal Acts," one of the three plays to be
given a full production this season, is about a teacher and students
seeking revenge. "It has just those topical and frightening
that will appeal to 20-year-olds as well as to an older audience,"
she notes. But how to get 20-somethings into the seats is the
Encouraged by the success of annual Fringe Festivals, pioneered in
Edinburgh, Scotland, and now found in New York, Philadelphia, and
many other urban center’s PTNJ’s producing artistic director John
Pietrowski intends to attract the young and adventurous to Newarks
first Fringe Festival, currently being planned for 2002. In the
in addition to the customary press releases, postcards, posters and
flyers, they are using the power and availability of the Web, E-mail,
and newsletters. Web address: www.ptnj.org
For one-stop access and links to all New Jersey Theaters, try
— Simon Saltzman
Edson, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer for drama, and long-running New
York hit. It tells the story of Vivian, an English literature scholar,
battling ovarian cancer. October 14 through November 12.
on Lee David Zlotoff’s film. It is about an ex-con who tries to
her life in a small town, where she finds a loving, new confidant.
November 25 to December 24.
Department of a New England College, and the man trying to make it
more "humane." January 6 until February 4.
comic fable that was a hit in the playwright’s native Argentina.
10 to March 11.
Ethan McSweeny. March 17 to April 15.
Turkish actress Cigdem Onat as a wartime opera star. April 21- May
comedy about the elderly Brewster sisters and their misplaced charity.
$12. September 29.
this very popular and very unusual dark musical comedy. $12. October
an ending to this Charles Dickens’ novel, but in a very un-Dickens
manner. This murder mystery has been transformed into a
musical comedy. $12. January 12.
reveals the secrets of one mind, and how when exposed, changes lives
forever. $12. February 23.
pop-rock gospel musical version of the world’s most famous story.
$12. March 30.
musical story of love, devotion and defiance in a poor Jewish family
in Czarist Russia. $12. April 27.
presents this warden versus patient rivalry drama that is set in a
loony bin. $12. May 18.
adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, September 12 to October 1.
Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show, written and directed by Jane Wagner,
October 17 to November 5.
5 to 24.
OnStage series, Marc Wolf’s solo show about public policy and gays
in the military. January 11 to 28.
restoration comedy, directed by Mark Lamos. February 13 to March 4.
Mann. Part Internet thriller, part psychological mystery, it is about
a high-powered New York City couple who awake to discover their
lives are no longer private. Opens March 27.
by South African playwright Athol Fugard. May 1 to 20.
University, Madison, 973-408-5600.
drama of passion. Opens September 5.
of the Shakespeare Festival’s most often requested play, October 24
to November 19.
and children by Maurice Maeterlinck. November 28 to December 17.
by Fredrick Knott and directed by Edward Keith Baker. October 10
through October 29. $27 to $34.
D. Atkinson. November 28 through December 17. $27 to $34.
Ross, directed by Susan D. Atkinson. January 30 through February 8.
$32 to $39.
directed by Susan D. Atkinson. March 13 to April 1. $27 to $34.
by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Weber, directed by Edward Keith
Baker. May 1 through May 20. $32 to $39.
a young priest who challenges the validity of an older priest’s
September 8 to October 14.
in 1944 during World War II when a couple of ladies decide to sing
a few songs for the GIs across the Atlantic. October 27 to December
Tony Award-winner Chita Riviera, directed by Lee Ray Reams. September
6 to October 15
comedy movie, with music by Henry Mancini. November 1 to December
men, thrown into turmoil by a piece of modern art. January 3 to
the life of stage and screen comedienne, Fanny Brice. April 4 to May
featuring famous songs like, "If I Loved You" and "You’ll
Never Walk Alone." Begins today and runs to July 15. Preview.
$37 to $60. May 30.
Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766.
about the famed operatic singer who went up against the D.A.R. October
12 to 29.
Shakespeare ’70, Studio Theater, College of New Jersey, Ewing,
millennium? Try an evening of bawdy music and comedy from London
at the turn of the last century. September 14 to 23.
classic ’80s music and cut-loose dancing, December 2. Chicago,
Broadway’s murderously swanky and seductive musical that includes
Bob Fosse-inspired choreography and a jazzy score, February 16 and
17. Man of La Mancha, Cervante’s classic story of Don Quixote
and his quest for the impossible dream comes to life on stage, March
30 & 31.
bittersweet love story about Cyrano and his love for Roxane, April
4. Phantom, Tony Award winners Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston,
join forces to create this new version of Gaston Leroux’s classic,
Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of good vs. evil, May 11 & 12.
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