Theaters Seek Young Audiences

It’s no secret that some of Chicago’s oldest and most well established theater companies are having trouble attracting audiences in their 20s and 30s. Now a few of those organizations, including Court Theatre on the University of Chicago campus, are beginning seriously to address the problem. Notes Court marketing director Jodi Royce: “Our audience demographic was creeping upward rather than downward, and we felt we needed to do something about that.” So Royce, other Court staffers, and representatives from the university’s public relations office sat down to brainstorm about how to lure a younger crowd to the theater’s first attraction in the 1993-’94 season: Pierre Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love.

Royce knew that Marivaux’s seldom-produced 18th-century work wouldn’t be familiar to most of the young theatergoers she wanted to reach, but she assumed the play’s themes were timeless and universal in their appeal: “This is a story about a very sexy princess doing everything she can to get a prince’s attention.” With that plot synopsis in mind, Royce and her cohorts devised an ad strategy centered on a newspaper personals format, using a minimal amount of copy to proclaim: “Seductive Princess. SF seeks SM. I won’t stop till I get my prince. Safe Romance. 20 Bucks.” Though the graphic image used with the copy–half of a face mask–is not nearly so bold or catchy as the words, the display ad Court came up with nonetheless stands apart from much local theater advertising, which tries to cram too many images, critics’ quotes, and production credits into very small spaces on a newspaper page.

Another company leaning toward the spare, young look is Steppenwolf, which is presenting Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile as the first play in its new “Studio” space. With lower ticket prices, the Steppenwolf Studio is meant to attract a young audience, and to reach that audience the company called on graphic artist Mark Oldach, who has also worked on advertising for Center Theater and the Oak Park Festival Theatre. Oldach believes it is time for every theater to rethink its advertising tactics to engage a generation that wasn’t old enough to go to the theater in the 1970s or 80s. “This is a new generation that is used to MTV, a generation that has a lot of other things to grab their attention,” explains Oldach. “Young people aren’t going to read a lot of words, so I think you’re going to see more theater advertising with a hipper, spare look.” True to his minimalist philosophy, Oldach devised a Picasso ad that frames an arty line drawing and the play’s title, author, and director in a considerable amount of blank white space.

A Good Fund-raiser Is Hard to Find

The Dance Center of Columbia College has lost–at least temporarily–one of its shining lights. Woodie White, executive director for the past three years, left his post last month to become director of development for the college. Technically White is on a year’s leave from the Dance Center, and at the end of that time he will have the option of returning to his former position or staying on as Columbia’s head of development. Columbia College executives apparently were anxious to move him into development because of his success in raising funds for the Dance Center over the past three years. Funding quadrupled during White’s tenure, while attendance at dance-related events climbed from 6,000 annually to close to 30,000. Though some believe he will be missed, White says he is confident that the new executive director, Julie Simpson (formerly associate director), is qualified to maintain the momentum at the Dance Center, one of the few bright spots in Chicago’s dark dance scene. Simpson says she and artistic director Shirley Mordine plan no major programming changes.

Kroch’s Christmas Wish: Survival

With the Christmas selling season about to begin, the attention of many in the book business seems to be focused on the struggle at Kroch’s & Brentano’s to regain a competitive edge. Rumors persist that Kroch’s eventually may be forced to file for bankruptcy protection, perhaps as early as January if it does not get enough of the Christmas business. Despite the company’s considerable efforts to cut costs and refocus, including the closing of 11 of 20 stores so far, sources at major book publishers who deal with the chain say Kroch’s continues to feel the impact of superstores such as Crown, Barnes & Noble, and Border’s. These new entries have introduced an appealing style of book retailing that Kroch’s was slow to adopt. “The superstores are part community center and part theater,” explains one source. Another suggests that Kroch’s no longer is a top-of-mind destination for books that may not be available at smaller independent bookstores. “I used to hear customers say they would check at Kroch’s for a book they couldn’t find here, but hardly anyone says that anymore,” notes one prominent North Shore independent. “I think it may be a case of doing too little too late to turn things around at Kroch’s.” Indeed, on a recent Sunday afternoon, traffic in Kroch’s rather dowdy Wabash flagship store was next to nil, while considerably more customers browsed the nearby Crown Books superstore. Though reps for major publishers say book inventory is lower at Kroch’s than it was in the chain’s glory days, Kroch’s president William Rickman says the company is in the process of removing a lot of nonbook inventory to make room for more books. Rickman also dismisses any talk of a possible bankruptcy filing: “Last spring our circumstances were pretty dire, but I think we have cleared up most of our problems with the restructuring and the downsizing of our company.”

A Toast to George Gershwin

Since he was a young music student, bandleader Bradley Young has admired George Gershwin. “He is my hero,” says Young, and next Tuesday evening he’s putting his art where his heart is, with a free Gershwin birthday bash at Pops for Champagne. This is the second time Young and Pops management have cohosted the celebration. Last year with a bare minimum of publicity, some 350 Gershwin addicts showed up, and this year 2,500 invitations have been mailed out. Young promises free champagne will flow and hors d’oeuvres will be passed while his band and a roster of torch singers regale guests with classic Gershwin songs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.