American Participation in Theater
Report 35: Executive Summary
According to nationwide surveys of arts participation sponsored by the National Endowment for
the Arts, American participation in theater or "non-musical stage plays" increased from 11.9
percent of all adults in 1982 to 13.5 percent in 1992„an increase of 13.4 percent and the
largest increase among the six benchmark categories studied (jazz, classical music, opera,
musicals, plays, and performing arts). For purposes of this survey, a non-musical stage play is a
theatrical production consisting of spoken dialogue.
In similar studies conducted in 1982, 1985, and 1992 by the U.S. Census Bureau, randomly
selected interview subjects (aged 18+) were asked a series of questions relating to their
participation in the arts through attendance at live performances, exposure via mass media,
personal participation in the arts, interest in attending more often, childhood exposure to the
arts, and related topics. The numbers of completed interviews were 17,254, 13,675, and 12,736,
respectively. Results from these Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPAs) have been
analyzed extensively in numerous research reports and monographs commissioned by the National
Endowment for the Arts. This analysis focuses exclusively on participation in stage plays. The
approach taken is first to examine the theater audience and its characteristics and then to explore
the dynamic forces shaping theater participation. Changes in producing and touring activity are
discussed, as well as the evolving nature of the art form itself.
Based on an adult population (18+) of 185.8 million, an estimated 25.1 million U.S. adults
attended live stage plays in 1992, compared to 20 million in 1982 when the adult population was 164
million. Accounting for sampling error at the 95 percent confidence level, the true size of the
1992 theater audience was between 24 and 26.2 million adults.
Among those reporting theater attendance, an average frequency of 2.4 times was reported (in the
preceding 12-month period), yielding a total of 60.2 gross attendances at live stage plays. About
27.4 percent of the theater audience attends 3 or more times per year, compared to 22.4 percent of
the audience for musicals, and 15.2 percent of the opera audience.
A third of all survey respondents expressed an interest in attending stage plays more frequently
than they do now, an increase of 9.4 percentage points since 1982 and the biggest increase for any
of the benchmark activities. The potential audience for stage plays is composed of 10 percent
current theatergoers who do not wish to increase their participation, 25 percent current
theatergoers who would like to attend more often, and 65 percent nonattenders with an
expressed interest in going. A relatively large untapped audience for stage plays is suggested.
Creating marketing and artistic "points of entry" for nonattenders is the implied challenge.
Over half of all stage play attenders (53.2 percent) also reported attending musical theater in
the preceding year, although only 41.1 percent of the musical theater audience also reported
attending stage plays - indicative of the relatively broader appeal of musicals. Stage play
audiences are most likely to be drawn from opera audiences (48.1 percent crossover), while only
11.7 percent of theatergoers "feed" the opera audience.
Like other types of arts attenders, theatergoers are more active in other leisure activities
compared to the general population. In 1992, 53.8 percent of theatergoers also attended sports
events, down from 68.3 percent in 1982. The average theatergoer watches 2.4 hours of TV every day, compared to 3.0 hours for the average American. With the
exception of exercise and charity work, participation by theatergoers in all other leisure
activities declined between 1982 and 1992.
Education remains the single most important predictor of stage play participation. While 35
percent of those with graduate school education reported theater attendance, only 4 percent of
those with high school education did so. Frequency of attendance also increases with education
Income is also highly correlated with frequent attendance at stage plays. Households with
incomes over $75,000 account for 17 percent of the theater audience compared to 26 percent of the
opera audience, but only 9.5 percent of the general population.
With respect to age, theater participation is somewhat more constant across age groups compared
to other benchmark activities. The highest theater participation rate (17.2 percent) was observed
among respondents aged 45Ü54, compared to a rate of just 6.7 percent for those aged 75 and
over. An analysis of theater participation by age cohort (i.e., following those born between
certain years) suggests that participation has increased evenly across all cohorts except for those
born before 1918 (the preÜWorld War I cohort), whose participation declined sharply.
Increased theater participation among African Americans and Hispanics is one of the most
significant findings of this analysis. Participation rates for African Americans more than doubled
from 5.8 percent in 1982 to 12.0 percent in 1992. Similarly, Hispanic participation in stage plays
also rose from 5.5 percent to 8.6 percent. Audience diversification efforts in the nonprofit
theater field appear to have made a significant impact since 1982.
Adults with no children comprise 81.4 percent of the audience for stage plays. Adults with
children under age 6 are substantially less likely to participate in theater compared to adults
with older children. Participation rises to near-average levels for adults with children aged 6-11,
suggesting that the theater field is adept at recapturing parents into the audience. Increases in
the levels of childrenÍs programming since 1982 help account for this phenomenon.
Data provided by Theater Communications Group (TCG) suggest a small increase in the number of
mainstage and other nontouring productions by nonprofit theaters. For a sample of 42 theaters, the
number of performances rose slightly from 13,304 in 1982 to 13,659 in 1992, while attendance rose
from 6.4 million to 6.8 million, or 6.7 percent. Thus it may be inferred that the 42 theaters
became more proficient at filling their houses, although population growth between 1982 and 1992
should have driven attendance up by 13 percent, holding all else constant.
The League of American Theaters and Producers (LATP) tracks commercial producing and touring
activity. Commercial touring of stage plays decreased from 23 productions in 1982 (an average of
10.6 weeks each), to 10 productions in 1992 (an average of 21.4 weeks each). The shift to longer
tours of fewer commercial productions may have resulted from several factors, including a decline
in the number of new plays and play revivals on Broadway, the increasing costs of touring, and the
opening of new commercial venues in cities like Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Cleveland, and
Among nonprofit theaters, a renewed focus on ethnically and culturally specific works strongly
corroborates the audience diversification observed since 1982, particularly among the African
American and Hispanic populations. Increased responsiveness to diverse constituencies became a
major thrust of the funding community during this period. The growing popularity of performance art
and solo performance (i.e., storytelling and monologue) undoubtedly had a positive impact on
theater participation, particularly among young audiences.
The observed increase in theater participation between 1982 and 1992 is measure„a broad
representation of many underlying factors, some consistent with increasing attendance, some
contradictory to it. Nevertheless, an attempt to reconcile demand for stage play programming (as
measured by participation rates and frequency) with the supply of theater programming is a
valuable, if inconclusive pursuit.
Local Context to Theater Participation
Another study conducted by the NEA in 1992 revealed some of the complex patterns of arts
participation at the local level, adding rich context to data from the national surveys.(1) In each of twelve areas studied (ranging from San Jose to Chicago), arts
participation rates were examined in light of the local supply of arts programs and facilities.
Theater participation was highest in Seattle/King County (WA) where a thriving theater community
was observed, including playwrights, actors, and a plethora of small, experimental ensembles known
collectively as "Seattle's fringe theaters." The study concluded that the relationship between the
supply of and demand for arts programming is anything but predictable. Dynamic forces shape
participation patterns in each community, including characteristics of the resident and nonresident
markets, the supply of producing and presenting activity, the availability of suitable performance
facilities, as well as local traditions and history. Further research at the local level will add
valuable context to theater participation in the United States and perhaps stimulate the transfer
of audience development strategies across communities.
The Future Audience
Will public participation in non-musical stage plays continue to grow? Ten years from now the
field will have endured another decade of change. New theaters will open and others will fold;
playwrights, directors, and actors will speak out in new ways; the funding climate will inevitably
change; and new communications technology will create possibilities for both theaters and
How will the theater make itself relevant to an increasingly diverse public? Much depends on the
resources made available to theaters, playwrights, and performers to develop new work and attract
new audiences. Most likely, the rising costs of producing and touring professional theater --
coupled with changes in the funding mix for nonprofit theaters -- will create even more pressure on
earned income. However, it is the developmental component of theater, free from commercial
expectations, that ultimately creates renewal. Audiences will continue to change and grow as new
works (and old works infused with new relevancy) bring the lives of more Americans closer to the
theater. Responsibility for creating new work rests not only with the nonprofit theater but also
with commercial producers, the funding community, and ultimately the audience itself.
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