As I write this column the morning of the third day of our vacation at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I note the comment of an actor friend of mine who, while seeing the plays, observed on Facebook that, “(a)t 43, I'm roughly one quarter the age of every other patron here.”
I wish that didn’t have as much truth in it as it does.
For my part, I’ve done my best to bring down the median audience age of Shakespeare fans by bringing four of my five children along with me to Cedar City. It’s all part of our family’s annual pilgrimage to one of the finest professional live theaters you’ll find anywhere in the world. But despite the high quality of the productions, my kids don’t run into a lot of their peers while they’re down here. The people sitting in the seats next to them tend to have gray hair if they have any hair at all.
For my part, I haven’t really paid attention to the festival’s demographic trends since my first visit more than three decades ago. Back then, I didn’t understand a word of “King Lear” when I saw it, but I thought it was really cool when the Earl of Gloucester got his eyes gouged out.
Even if I didn’t know what was going on, I was perfectly content sitting out under the stars on a cool summer night, surrounded by family and friends and eating good food. After all, aren’t those the same reasons why people go to baseball games? Those are almost always more boring than Shakespeare, probably because the shortstop almost never gets his eyes gouged out.
As the years went by, our yearly trips became more fun as I came to appreciate what I was watching even more than the pleasant conditions under which I was watching it. I looked forward to the experience all year long, and I gained a profound appreciation for live theater that I doubt I could have gotten in any other way. I still love it, and my children love it, too. Furthermore, I think a lot of other children would love it if they took the time to see a show or two.
But that’s the trick, isn’t it?
A large and growing segment of the population would never even consider putting live theater on their family’s summertime “to-do” list. A number of people who would be just as bored at a baseball game as they would at “King Lear” would still rather sit through nine interminable innings without an intermission than watch grown-ups in tights speaking in iambic pentameter. Part of the reason is that baseball, while far more tedious than Elizabethan theater, isn’t nearly as intimidating. Shakespeare, you see, is supposed to be “good for you,” much in the same way broccoli is. And given the choice between broccoli and a ballpark hot dog, most folks will be reaching for the mustard.
That reality has sparked a great deal of lamentation from elitists over the years, as a handful of our self-appointed cultural superiors decry the plebeian tastes of the hoi polloi. But such high-handed hectoring produces guilt, not audiences. Obligation simply isn’t a great way to fill theatres.
It should be noted that people in Shakespeare’s day didn’t go to the Globe because it was good for them. They went because it was fun. Ironically, the aristocrats back then were the ones looking down their noses at the rabble infesting the public theater.
Clearly attitudes about the theater have changed drastically, and I think they will change again. In our increasingly busy and interconnected age, there’s something very primal and powerful about a live performance that can’t be duplicated at the movies or online.
That’s a truth that’s ripe for rediscovery, which means that little kids will be watching people pretending to get their eyes gouged out for generations to come.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.