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He Subscribes to Intrepid Audiences

July 14, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

A lot of theater watchers talk about the "graying" of audiences. The average age of theatergoers keeps getting older, we're told.

Robert Schlosser, the Mark Taper Forum's director of audience development for 23 years, isn't sure he buys the "graying" idea. "There was a 'graying' audience when I arrived, and somebody replaced them," Schlosser said.

Now, somebody has replaced Schlosser. At age 61, Schlosser has retired from Center Theatre Group, where he was the chief audience builder for the Taper since 1973 and also for the Ahmanson Theatre seasons since 1989, when the Ahmanson series moved to the Doolittle Theatre (it returned back home last year).

The new chief audience booster, Jim Royce, who has been an arts marketer in the Bay Area, has a different title and a wider domain. As marketing and communications director, he'll supervise the publicity department as well as Schlosser's former domain.

Schlosser will continue as a consultant for Center Theatre Group and other theaters. And he's chairman of the board of Highways, the Santa Monica performance center where he once took a writing workshop that he believes "gave me the courage to jump off this cliff."

While few would claim that the Taper audience is as intrepid as the Highways audience, Schlosser believes that Taper theatergoers "remain adventurous, willing to take stuff that's close to the edge.

"They do complain vociferously when they think something is bad," Schlosser said--and Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson listens: "We get five letters [complaining] about something, and Gordon thinks the audience is going to rush the theater with burning torches."

Generally, though, subscribers have "stuck with us through thick and thin," he said. Every year, at least 80% of the Taper subscribers renew. Last year's renewal rate was 82% at the Taper (and this was after a 1994-95 season that began with the much-dissed two-part "Floating Islands") and 80% at the Ahmanson.

Schlosser's task was to keep the old-timers while also attracting nontraditional audiences. The Latino Theatre Initiative, for example, was intended to attract more Latinos. Recent data is not available, but returns from the Initiative's first season in 1993-94 were encouraging--the percentage of Latinos among Taper ticket buyers (both subscription and single ticket) rose from 2% in 1991-92 to 20%. The audience for one show that season, "Bandido!," was 45.6% Latino. Most observers agree, however, that the Latino stats probably dipped the following season, when the Initiative was represented on the mainstage by "Floating Islands." Data is based on surnames and audience surveys.

Schlosser recalled one "complete bust"--the failure in 1978 of "Winter Dancers," a play about the Kwakiutl, a Northwestern Native American tribe, to attract Native Americans, despite a concerted effort to work with Native American organizations to promote it. A year later, Schlosser learned indirectly that many Native Americans "resented that their rituals were presented in a public place" without a proper blessing of the stage. When such steps were taken for "Black Elk Speaks" last year, it attracted many more Native Americans.

The Ahmanson audience is larger than the Taper's (39,000 subscribers compared to 22,500), "more conservative and, in the main, older," Schlosser said. Although he believes that the Ahmanson's spectrum of subscribers has grown in recent years, for most Ahmanson shows "we still need a star's power, unless you have a 'Carousel' that arrives with a built-in reputation."

Last year, Center Theatre Group began a cross-CTG subscription program, Passport 2000. For $100 upfront, one could buy half-price tickets to any Taper or Ahmanson show. About 1,200 people signed up. The program was not widely promoted, out of concern that Taper or Ahmanson subscribers might switch to the Passport--and "a handful" switched anyway, Schlosser said. However, "given the fact that subscribers didn't rush to sign up for it," he believes "a larger net will be cast" promoting this year's Passport.

Schlosser instituted many such programs during his tenure, including low-priced Public Rush and Pay What You Can tickets, discounted student subscriptions and scholarships for students who are unable to pay, and discounted subscriptions to signed performances for deaf theatergoers, who are able to read scripts in advance of seeing the show and participate in discussions afterward.

Schlosser is most enthusiastic, however, when he discusses the shows themselves. Asked to pick a favorite, he named two--"Angels in America" (1992) and, less predictably, "Passion Play" (1984). The latter title more or less sums up what he finds missing in some of the younger members of his profession--a passion for plays: "So many people today talk in terms of market research instead of what's on the stage."

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