The Parent Trap
How to hold on to theatregoers with young children? Offer them sitters along with their seats.
By Rob Weinert-Kendt
To retain theatregoers with small children who find an outing to the theatre cost-prohibitive.
Offer affordable childcare during select performances.
Young families have used the service and word is spreading.
The response hasn’t been huge; more marketing is required.
Partnerships with other theatres and organizations to pool resources and broaden the user base.
In their seemingly perpetual worry about the graying of their audiences, theatres lately have sought to turn young people into habitual ticket-buyers with creative pricing schemes and special events. But you can lure all the hip young singles and couples you want to your theatre door. Then they start having babies.
“We lose parents for at least a decade,” says Leslie Marcus, managing director of New York City’s Playwrights Horizons. “We did an informal survey, polling parents on mommy blogs and parenting sites, asking: Did they go to the theatre before they had kids, and not now, and why? The response was so consistent: The combined cost of a show and a babysitter, and the hassle factor of getting and holding onto a babysitter, made it cost-prohibitive for them.”
Alan Berks, communications director for Minneapolis’s Pillsbury House Theatre, noticed the same thing, and thought his theatre might be particularly vulnerable.
“An evening at the theatre becomes so expensive that smaller-to-mid-size theatres like ours are going to lose out to shows that are spectacular,” Berks reasons. “If people go to the theatre less frequently, they’re going to want something big for their money.”
These insights aren’t unique. But leaders at Playwrights and Pillsbury did more than notice this trend. This year they’ve taken action: Both now offer childcare to theatregoers during select performances. Both are subsidizing their childcare programs in the name of audience development. And both have had modest success on which they hope to build.
In the case of Playwrights Horizons, the idea for Playtime! was hatched when the midsize Off-Broadway company moved back into its renovated 42nd Street theatre complex in 2003.
“We started talking about the fact that we would have a lot more space, and the opportunities that would present themselves,” Marcus recalls. “One idea that came up was child care.” But research into the idea foundered on issues of cost, and other producing priorities intervened.
Then various PH staff members started having kids themselves. Not only did this make the problem more immediate—it gave on-staff parents some field experience.
“I had become familiar with Sitters Studio—I happen to have used them myself,” recalls Marcus. Creating a childcare program by contracting it to Sitters Studio, whose childcare providers are all working artists, would help overcome what Marcus calls “this very large obstacle, which is: How do we have a group of sitters who can scale up or scale down depending on the turnout?” More important, Marcus notes: “They are an insured and bonded agency.”
Another big hurdle, though, was cost. Playwrights Horizons applied for funding from the Times Square Theatre Subdistrict Council, a nonprofit organization for the Theatre District, and got a grant for the first year under the rubric of audience development. The funding allows the theatre’s childcare program, Playtime!, to charge, per child per performance, just $15—the going hourly rate for babysitting in New York City. (The service is free for subscribers.)
So far Playtime! has only been offered for select matinees and one “date night” evening, and it only accepts children aged 4–12 (translation: no diapers). The program, though, recently expanded beyond PH offerings to include performances of shows at nearby the Little Shubert Theatre and the Westside Theatre, two commercial theatres. And when the Signature Theatre reopens in early 2012, its myriad of offerings is slated to join Playtime! as well.
“It was never our intention that this would be just a program for Playwrights Horizons,” says Marcus. “From the get-go, my hope was to reach out to our colleagues in a five- or six-block radius, and to create a model that could work anywhere there are a number of performing arts groups.”
Consolidation makes sense for another reason. “The numbers have been small so far,” Marcus admits. “The greatest number of children we’ve had was six or seven kids, and there has been at least one time when there was just one kid.”
The numbers have also been small at Pillsbury House, Berks says, but he doesn’t hope to increase them by teaming with other theatres. Instead, Pillsbury has a built-in advantage when it comes to providing childcare: The theatre is a unique hybrid of arts and social service organization where the artistic and social service staff are fully intertwined. By day, in fact, Pillsbury House already offers fully licensed childcare for the community.
“The daycare entrance is literally five feet from the entrance of the theatre, so it’s very much a no-brainer to put them together,” says Berks. “We have a licensed program with separate rooms entirely set up for children. So there’s a credibility component that other theatres might have to build up if they wanted to start a similar program.”
Pillsbury House offers its service free to all theatregoers for select performances, financing the extra childcare workers’ hours from its external relations budget. “We see this as an access issue, and that’s the kind of thing we spend money on,” says Berks, likening the effort to inclusivity programs for visually- and hearing-impaired audience members.
Remarkably, there are very few similar programs nationwide. Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, for one, bundles “family subscriptions” with season-ticket purchases, so that for $75 per season, a child aged 6–14 can choose either to see the show with his or her parents, if appropriate, or participate in a theatre workshop given by Lookingglass artists.
Marcus and Berks both report that the initial excitement around their programs’ launch tapered off, and that ongoing marketing efforts—and, in the case of Playtime!, partnerships with other theatres—may help address the shortfall.
But retreat is not an option. As Berks puts it, “If we have any interest in keeping the people who drop off in their theatregoing during their child-rearing years, we need to offer this service.”