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OSF tries to lure missing middle

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's audience is graying &

and the next generation of theater fans is largely missing from the seats.

In mail and on-line surveys, OSF found that only 15 to 31 percent of its single-ticket buyers are under age 45, said OSF Marketing Manager Bob Hackett.

Those figures don't count the students who come as part of groups, he noted, but they do show that few young adults are attending plays.

OSF has long been known for its extensive educational programs that attract busloads of students. Patrons over age 50 are also common. But it is the missing middle demographic that OSF is now eyeing.

On March 8, OSF hosted an "Under 40" event. Young adults who bought a $20 ticket got to mingle with their peers, talk to actors and drink wine at a pre-show reception in Carpenter Hall. A production of "Rabbit Hole" by young playwright David Lindsay-Abaire followed in The New Theatre.

"It was one of our first efforts to begin to really connect with the under 40 demographic locally," Hackett said.

He said he would have considered the event a success if OSF sold 60 tickets, but young adults snapped up 85 tickets.

Local resident Jennifer Brian went to the "Under 40" event with her husband.

"It's hard to find events in Ashland that cater to a younger crowd," she said. "With theater, the audience is such a part of the experience. It was interesting to see the play with people of our age range. Every demographic has something different that they bring to it, their perspective. Also, the wine hour beforehand was a chance to meet people who maybe it would be hard to meet otherwise. We really enjoyed it."

Theater audiences aging

OSF's challenge with drawing young adults is not unique.

Across the country, adults ages 45 to 54 are the most likely to see a play, according to a 2002 National Endowment for the Arts survey.

Hackett said he's not surprised that the average OSF theater-goer's age is in the low 50s, typically a time in life where children are grown and earning power is strong.

But OSF still wants to reach out to younger adults. On March 4, OSF hosted a family day where 225 parents and their children attended a pre-show educational discussion, a production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and a post-show discussion with the actors, Hackett said. Tickets were $15 each.

An attractive price, adding a pre or post-show event where people can socialize and inviting a specific age group to attend and become involved with the organization are important in drawing young adults, he said.

Hackett said other theaters, especially in urban centers, are working to bring in that demographic.

"Some people even go so far as to do singles nights," he said.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre offers $10 tickets to people who are 25 years old and under. People who are 28 years old and under also get a special discount price, said Ilana Balint, public relations manager for the theater company.

Young professionals, mostly in their 30s, are drawn to "The Crew," a young adults subscriber group that holds monthly meetings and attends pre-show events and post-show parties, she said.

The Odyssey Theater Ensemble in Los Angeles offers $12 tickets for those who are 25 years old and under. The company formed youth councils to offer advice on ad designs and on what attracts younger people to the theater, L.A. Weekly reported.

Back in Ashland, Tom Olbrich, executive director of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, said the festival attracts an older demographic than the typical movie-goer crowd.

He said including programming that will appeal to younger people is important. Two years ago, the festival screened a film with Bruce Campbell, who has a cult following among young adults. People came from as far away as Wyoming to see the film, and 150 fans &

mostly Southern Oregon University students &

attended a sold-out seminar with Campbell.

The film festival is continuing it's late-night "Filmmakers Lounge" at The Black Sheep under the more inclusive-sounding name "After Lounge," Olbrich said.

"It's packed every single night. It's a wide demographic, but it definitely ends up skewing a bit younger than our 'normal' audience," he said.

A long-term view

OSF's success in attracting young adults is "critically important" for the long-term viability of not only the Festival, but Ashland's overall economy, said Ashland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Slattery.

As older audience members age, the next wave of theater-goers needs to take their place, she said.

Ashland is also facing a challenge with how the Baby Boom generation and younger generations vacation. The older generation returns to Ashland and OSF year after year, she said.

"People who are Baby Boomers and younger want new experiences. It's very important for the Festival and the community as a whole to show that something new is happening, something fresh, so they don't perceive it as the same old thing," Slattery said.

Hackett also said that vacation habits are different with younger adults. One year they might go to Italy, and the next year they might travel to Alaska.

"What's interesting to try to get the under 40 demographic is that it's very much a culture of been-there, done-that," he said. "The idea of repeating year after year with the same vacation like their parents did is much less likely."

Slattery said that having restaurants, brew pubs, wine bars and music venues where people can socialize helps Ashland develop a reputation as a town that is exciting and fun.

She said Ashland also needs to continue promoting itself as a place for both cultural opportunities and outdoor recreation.

"Younger people stay up late. They want to engage in multiple venues. They want to take a bike ride, ski a mountain, raft a river and see a play, and then maybe go to a wine bar or a music venue," she said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post an on-line comment, visit .