Marketing the Arts to a 21st Century Audience

3D shows? Popcorn and free beer? Gen Xers and Millennials aren't turning out for performing arts events like previous generations, but Denver arts organizations are creatively reversing that trend. 
Charlie Miller, co-curator of Off-Center @ The Jones, an offshoot of the Denver Center Theatre Company, shares a common performing-arts lament. 
“Younger people aren't coming to the theater like their parents and grandparents did,” Miller says. “We do have a core group of younger professionals who are Denver Center subscribers, but the there's a whole other audience that isn't interested in theater.”
Funded by grants from the Doris Duke Foundation and curated by Denver Center staffers Miller and Emily Tarquin, Off-Center is a response to this dip in audience. 
"It's less traditional, there are fewer formalities and it's more accessible,” Miller says about Off-Center. “It's theater that feels like a night out.”
“The audience gets 3-D glasses with the lenses cut out and free popcorn and free beer,” says Off-Center @ Co-Curator Charlie Miller. “The show starts the moment you walk into the theater.”
An example is the recurring improv show, "Cult Following," which depicts the life and times of its film-geek characters and incorporates crowd-suggested movie scenes. 
“The audience gets 3-D glasses with the lenses cut out and free popcorn and free beer,” says Miller. “The show starts the moment you walk into the theater.”
Other shows push the artistic envelope in different ways. "Square of Ice," which was staged when the Johnny Cash bio-musical "Ring of Fire" was on the main stage at the Denver Center, was a “two-night American Idol talent competition” with contestants ranging from slam poets to ice carvers.  
These attempts to resonate with a younger crowd by plugging into pop culture and encouraging audience participation are working. According to an informal survey, about 50 percent of the Off-Center audience is in the 25-to-34 age range, as opposed to about 30 percent for the Denver Center in general.
“It's our second season,” says Miller. “We're still growing and building it.”
Making Opera More Accessible
Opera might have the toughest time of any performing art when it comes to attracting 20- and 30-somethings.

“We can always be doing better on getting a younger demographic into opera,” says Greg Carpenter, general director for Opera Colorado. “The average age of our audience is 52, which skews a little younger than similar arts organizations.”
To bring in a younger audience, Opera Colorado staged "Sideshow!" the past two Novembers in a “very intimate cabaret setting,” says Carpenter. “You can sit at a cocktail table and have drinks and something to eat.” 
Instead of one overarching story, "Sideshow!" consists of several short performances. The opera is in English, not Italian, and it's one act, not three. While Opera Colorado did not track the age of ticket buyers -- which is more often than not the case in the performing arts world -- Carpenter says anecdotal evidence pointed to a younger audience. 
“We get people who are intimidated by opera because it's in a different language or because it's three hours long,” says Carpenter. “I'd be thrilled if 10 percent of our 'Sideshow!' audience migrated to our regular performances. We want to cultivate a longtime interest in opera.”  
Casual promotional and fundraising performances in nontraditional venues by younger artists helps “demystify” opera and attracts younger ticket-buyers, as do group sales to local colleges and universities.
“When younger people can come with a group, quite often they enjoy the experience more,” Carpenter says.
Expansion Through Collaboration "The Emperor of Atlantic," an opera performed during "A Journey of the Human Spirit" by the Central City Opera.
Ballet Nouveau in Broomfield has focused on collaborations since Artistic Director Garrett Ammon and Associate Artistic Director Dawn Fay arrived via Memphis in 2007. 
“We were blown away by how much creative energy is in this community,” says Ammon. “It's a unique voice, not like anything you'd see on the coasts.”
Despite Denver’s swell of creative energy, Ammon had to figure out how to “create something new out of these mediums that are living in their own isolated bubbles.”
It follows that Ballet Nouveau has collaborated with poets, chamber orchestras and folk-rock band Paper Bird to create new original contemporary dance shows. That recipe has attracted a broader audience than your typical dance company. 
“If you come to one of our shows, you aren't going to see a typical performing-arts audience,” says Ammon. “You are going to see every age you can imagine and every walk of life.” 
"Carry On," the Ballet Nouveau collaboration with Paper Bird, will be reprised at three venues in February.
“You'll see an elderly couple next to pierced and tattooed 20-somethings next to a suburban family,” says Ammon. “It shows how similar we all are. That in itself creates a new energy. We've tried to own than and not try to hype it.”
Authenticity Sells
“Audiences are really savvy,” says Ammon. “The moment they feel you are trying to sell them something, they push back. Gone our the days when you could flood the market with marketing materials and expect them to show up. You really have to lean on word of mouth.”
And word of mouth has helped balloon Ballet Nouveau's subscriber base by more than 50 percent after the first show of the season. 
“I think we're breaking through with the message that we'll always be doing something different,” says Ammon.
He's not interested in specifically targeting a younger demographic, but rather attracting the broader community. “You don't always want to focus on 20- and 30-somethings. They're going to get older and we want them as lifelong fans.”
A dress rehearsal of "Wake" at the Buntport Theater in the Santa Fe Arts District.
Critically adored for breaking the mold and rebuilding it in unexpected ways, Buntport Theater is in its 12th season performing original plays in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe. “The style is like anti-theater,” says Co-Founder/Actor/Writer Erin Rollman. “We relish breaking stereotypes.”
Rollman says Buntport's audience is very young for performing arts, but it's not necessarily by design. 
“We don't set out to attract anyone,” she explains. “We're extremely un-calculated.”
While there may be no concrete method to Buntport's madness, there are several reason the company's audience skews younger than most of its theatrical peers.
“There's no question that price is completely key to attracting a younger audience,” says Rollman, who was in her mid-20s when Buntport was born. “I think it's crazy important. At first, we couldn't be more expensive than our friends could afford.” 
To this end, tickets at Buntport top out at $20. The perceived value helps the fundraising. “We have more people giving less.”
Buntport's live sitcom "Magnets on the Fridge," helped cement the company's reputation. “The reason we started the sitcom was because we wanted people to come more regularly than four times a year,” says Rollman. 
The show is now retired, but the tradition lives on in the form of recurring shows "The Great Debate" and "Syndicated Buntport." Rollman says both get numerous repeat customers, and patrons never miss a show.
Buntport's marketing initiatives take place via snail mail (postcards) and social media (which Rollman describes as “disappointing”). 
“Last year was the first year we spent any money on advertising ever,” says Rollman. (Buntport underwrote programming on local public radio.) “Still the best way to get crowds to come is a good review.”
Debuting on January 25 is Buntport's 34th original production: an as-yet-untitled take on Shakespeare's "The Tempest." 
“I think it's important for companies to be themselves,” says Rollman, “and never attempt to be hip.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
Signup for Email Alerts