It's a new age for the stage, Grandma. The corset's coming off.
In the wake of a marketing study, the Omaha Community Playhouse has decided to shake up a sometimes stodgy image.
Starting this fall, the Playhouse's smaller Howard Drew Theater will venture into cutting-age, contemporary and sometimes risqué waters, opening its new season with Tracy Letts' profane Pulitzer Prize winner "August: Osage County."
Mainstream shows, such as musicals "Legally Blonde" and "The Wizard of Oz," will continue to fill the Hawks Mainstage. These types of shows — aimed at families and an older, more traditional audience — have long been a mainstay in both performance spaces.
The marketing study, completed last year by Omaha advertising firm Bailey Lauerman, found that respondents had a split perception of the Playhouse. Officials at the Playhouse said they conduct such studies periodically to assess the nature of their image and audience.
Season members surveyed in the study thought the Playhouse was on the right page and were complimentary, said Carl Beck, the Playhouse's artistic director. Many people have held season tickets for decades.
"The counterpoint was nonmembers who rarely or never frequent the Playhouse," Beck said. "They said we were behind the times, not with it, something their grandmothers did — but not of primary interest to them."
If the Omaha Community Playhouse were a cocktail, one focus group member bluntly said, it would be a gin rickey, a classic 1930s drink.
The two-pronged season aims to reach a wider Playhouse audience while continuing to please its older, more traditional base. The change comes in the context of a season in which every show but one has exceeded financial expectations, Playhouse officials said.
"We decided to take the Playhouse in two definite directions," Beck said.
In recent years, the Playhouse chose its season partly by polling current audience members about what shows they most wanted to see. The new strategy marks a sharp departure from that method.
Starting in 2010, Playhouse staff and board members began talking about the community's perception of the theater brand to see if changes were necessary, said marketing director Katie Wortmann. The latest marketing study grew out of those discussions.
Playhouse President Tim Schmad and the board endorsed the programming shift. Board President Dave Kirkwood, a vice president of Tenaska, is among business leaders on the board who routinely look at branding image in their own firms.
Longtime Playhouse patrons often have criticized shows that contain profanity or frank sexual themes, threatening not to come anymore, associate director Susan Baer Collins said. Others criticized show selections as too safe, not adventurous enough.
In 2010, the Playhouse launched its 21 & Over series of staged readings of plays and a monthly play-discussion group. Both featured contemporary works with mature themes. The events brought many new — and younger — faces to the Playhouse, Beck said. The popularity of that series also influenced the decision for change.
"August: Osage County," the Pulitzer winner, and "boom," a doomsday comedy by Peter Nachtrieb, are 21 & Over selections that will be included in next year's Howard Drew season.
Like other arts organizations, the Playhouse has suffered during times of economic hardship. When the recession hit in late 2008, corporate and individual donations fell. Playhouse officials saw scheduling popular fare as a way to maximize ticket revenue during a budget crunch.
Now, Beck said, the branding shift is about survival too, just as safer choices were.
"Who will the Playhouse audience be 10 or 15 years from now?" he asked.
Playhouse season-ticket sales have fallen from a 1992-93 high of 12,289 to 4,711 this season. That matches a national shift away from season subscriptions and toward single-ticket sales, which Playhouse officials said have risen dramatically there in recent years. They said they didn't have single-ticket figures readily available.
When the Playhouse's smaller performance space opened in the early 1980s, Wortmann said, it was envisioned as a theater for experimentation, more adventurous works, new titles and taking risks. Now it will become just that.
Wortmann said the new programming concept will help the Playhouse reach a larger part of the community and not just its core demographic.
"And we want to do more adventurous works that are sometimes not offered in this region. That's what I'm most excited about," Beck said.
The new branding is an effort to guide people toward the kind of theater they want.
"We hope lots of people find they enjoy both kinds of shows," Beck said. "But we don't want them to wander into the Howard Drew and be offended."
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