By Ronald B. Hellman
Why should that be?Queens has an estimated population of some 2.2 million. But even if most of those people never attend a theater event, that still leaves at least tens of thousands who do. It can't be the price – most of the groups charge little more than a movie ticket. And it can't be the location – there's a theater company near you that's no more than a 30-minute drive. And it can't be the quality – although the productions may vary, audiences are almost always quite pleased with what they see. So what is it?Theatergoers are generally older members of the population, so there's no question that younger people have to be convinced that live theater is a great experience. That's not easy when there's so much happening in New York to attract one's attention. It's hard to compete with the movies and television, both of which usually require much less thought and move at a much faster pace than something on stage. So will another play by Agatha Christie or Neil Simon be able to fill the seats, or another performance of such warhorses as “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” do the trick?One advantage of those older plays is that they have a lot of characters, and the more actors in a play, the more people to spread the word, and the more of their friends to come to see it. Another advantage is the name recognition. The typical theatergoer will more likely go to something they have heard of, rather than a work unknown to them. So when the Phoenix Players present “Tea,” opening Friday, or The Outrageous Fortune Company produces “The Moonlight Room,” recently closed, a chance is taken in the hope that the adventurous and sophisticated theatergoer will show up.The fact remains, however, that a play produced by the commercial theater in Manhattan, and well reviewed, will almost always have a limited run unless there is well-known star in it. That's why you'll see the names of TV and film celebrities in the ads – that's what sells the tickets.In Queens the theater companies have limited resources, and the actors, worthy though they may be, do not have broad name recognition. So what to do to fill the seats? If I have to offer a solution – make that a plan of action – it is first of all to do new and seldom-performed plays, ones that a younger and modern audience can relate to. I think it's a mistake to underestimate the enjoyment and entertainment value of theater that challenges an audience and makes it think. Just as “change” is the key word in our current political climate, change in what appears on stage has a better chance to bring in the public than what has been done over and over again.It would also be wise to appeal to an audience besides white older people, such as blacks, Latinos and Asians. Queens is known for its diversity – let's see more of it in our theaters. And, of course, all this has to be marketed. A mailing list may be fine, and so are fliers and newspaper notices, but Web sites and the Internet are gaining in popularity and acceptance. Still nothing beats word-of-mouth, but first you have to get the public to pay attention. Any suggestions?Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.