Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Theater-Goers of the World, Unite!

Marissa Skudlarek takes on the perception of Theatre as a leisure activity for the rich.

My column is called “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life,” but I hope you realize that I’m saying that with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate the idea that theater is an elitist pursuit.

Yes, theater is a leisure activity, a luxury rather than a necessity. The downtrodden of society require adequate food and housing far more than they require tickets to see a play. But within the realm of leisure activities, theater should be no more elitist than, say, sports. One source I found online says that the average price of a ticket to a Giants game is $30 — and there’s plenty of good theater to be found in the Bay Area for $30 a ticket.

Yet theater is perceived as more elitist than baseball — and what’s worse, there are forces in society that seem to want it that way.

The other night, I took an online survey conducted by the company that makes those glossy playbills for CalShakes and Berkeley Rep and ACT. They wanted to get a sense of the people who attend plays at those theaters, in order to have data to show to their advertisers. And, judging by the questions that they asked, they are under the impression that everyone who goes to these theaters is rolling in dough.

The survey asked “What is the current market value of your primary residence?” and “I don’t know, I rent a room in an apartment” was not an option. (Note, too, the phrase “primary residence” — as though many of the people who take this survey have second homes!) It asked whether I had made use of a cosmetic surgeon, an architect, a landscaper, and/or a personal chef within the last year. It asked whether I had a “financial planner/advisor,” a “CPA,” a “private banker/wealth manager,” and/or a “stockbroker” working for me, when I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the difference is between those four types of financial professionals. It asked whether I’d been on a cruise in the past year, or bought “fine jewelry.”

Toward the end, the survey asked “What is your profession?” And rather than listing the choices in alphabetical order or random order, the survey arranged them in a way that seems to go from most-frequent/most-desirable (among theatergoers) to least-frequent/least-desirable. In order, the choices went “Retired, Homemaker, Management, Business & Finance, Computer & Tech, Architecture & Engineering, Life/Physical/Social Sciences, Community & Social Services; Legal; Education & Library; Arts/Design/Entertainment; Sales; Office & Administrative Support; Farming/Fishing/Forestry; Laborer; Food Preparation & Serving; Personal Care & Service; Military Specific; Owner/Principal.”

I have never seen such a bald-faced description of our class system. Finance and tech on top; restaurant workers, hairdressers, and home health aides on the bottom. And an admission that these big institutional theaters cater mostly to retirees and homemakers!

By this time, I was really pissed off, and thought of putting “Laborer,” out of some romantic Marxist notion that we wage-slaves of the proletariat have to show solidarity with one another. But in truth, I work as a paralegal, so I put “Legal,” though I know that to the makers of this survey, being a paralegal (as opposed to an attorney) probably doesn’t really “count” as being a member of the legal profession.

I understand that advertisers want to target the people with the most disposable income, and thus, the money of an apartment-renting paralegal isn’t worth as much to them as the money of a home-owning CEO. Even if lots of working- and middle-class people attend the theater and complete this survey, the advertisers will probably still chase after rich people’s money, because they have more of it to spend.

But what galls me is that the survey won’t even acknowledge that theatergoers can come from the middle and working classes. That “I rent an apartment” or “I cobble together odd jobs to pay the bills” were not even options. Theaters say that they want to welcome new, young audiences, and then they send us a survey whose subtext is “If you don’t own a million-dollar home, you don’t belong here.” All you really need in order to attend the theater is a free night and $30 or so for your ticket. But this survey makes it seem like, in order to pass through the hallowed doors of this Temple of Culture, you need much more than that: you need money and property and education and a thick, impervious armor of upper-class privilege.

And now I’m thinking about all of the things the survey could have asked, instead of asking how much money I make or what kind of car I drive. (I don’t have a car; that’s why I live in San Francisco!) It could have asked me how often I attend the theater, or what I gain from theatergoing, or why I spend so much time and money on an activity that has all of this snooty, elitist baggage attached to it. Maybe then they would have learned something that’s truly worth hearing.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and wage-earner. She likes to refer to herself as an “Oscar Wilde-style socialist.” Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

6 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Theater-Goers of the World, Unite!

  1. Rob Ready says:

    This. This times a million. It’s a very real problem, and a very real reason that theater doesn’t connect with a lot of people – it’s not for them (ie, us).

  2. Dan Kurtz says:

    Marissa, can you give a link to that survey? A lot of people who will read this attend theater at those companies. If a bunch of us fill out that survey, it’ll help them get a more accurate sense of their audience, so that maybe the next survey won’t make weird assumptions.

    • Dan, I like the way you think. Agreed, the reason I fill out these kinds of surveys — even when they piss me off — is so that theaters will maybe, eventually, understand that we’re not all flush with cash. In the space left for comments at the end, I also wrote that I felt insulted that “I rent an apartment” was not an option on the survey!

      The link I have for the survey is http://www.gmaresearch.com/cs

  3. Dear Marissa:
    As I’m sure you know, different marketing surveys are pitched for different reasons — with niche audiences a very specific target in mind. An audience survey designed to give feedback for potential advertisers is probably going to be very differently constructed than an audience survey aimed at building subscriptions or single ticket sales.

    Nevertheless, the survey you refer to would be distinctly off-putting to a much larger section of the audience than the marketing departments for these particular theatres might wish.

    Cheers.

    George Heymont
    http://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com/2007/11/about-author.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-heymont

    • True, and I do acknowledge that, as long as we live in a society with class differences, advertisers would rather chase rich people’s money than middle- or working-class people’s. But I believe there has to be a way to construct this survey that would let the advertisers get the information they want, without completely alienating non-wealthy people who take the survey.

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