THEATER SEASON For younger set, the play's the thing

They don't make reservations, but when young people decide to go to a play, they show up in groups, a box office manager says.
If there's a motto for the new community theater season that begins Friday, it's "think young."
Encouraged by new faces that have appeared on and off the stage, theater leaders are courting the younger audience more vigorously than in previous years.
The trend began at Youngstown Playhouse in summer 2000 with its production of "Grease," box office supervisor Patty Moretti says.
"Years ago everything was done -- I'd say 90 percent of our audience -- by reservations, but over the last couple years, we're getting a lot of walkups," said Moretti, who's worked at the Playhouse for 15 years.
Moretti said four things are true of those walk-up customers: They are mostly from the college crowd, they decide at the last minute to see plays, they attend in groups, and they are enthusiastic.
"I love it. ... It's refreshing," Moretti said.
Elsewhere: When Oakland Center for the Arts offered the satire "Six Degrees of Separation" last spring, "Every night, we were shocked at the young people in our audience," business manager Brendan Byers said.
The subscriber base at Trumbull New Theatre in Niles has been changing for the last five or six years, said Anita Philibin, president of TNT's women's committee and a member of the play-reading committee. She's noticed more high school-age people in the audience, and some of them are also getting involved in productions.
A few 18-year-olds recently joined the women's committee, which sells season subscriptions and raises funds for equipment, Philibin said.
Survival: Audience regeneration is crucial to community theater's survival, said Robert Vargo, the Playhouse's managing director. The traditional season subscriber base is older and dwindling in number because of lifestyle changes, such as relocation and illness, he said.
Vargo planned the upcoming season with a younger demographic in mind. He thinks the opening show, "Little Shop of Horrors," will be familiar to them because of the 1986 feature film starring Rick Moranis. They may also know "Amadeus" because of the Oscar-winning film from 1984. A good response to the Broadway musical "Mamma Mia" could also benefit the Playhouse's springtime production of the largely unknown "Chess," because Swedish pop group ABBA wrote the music for both shows, Vargo said.
Even classic shows such as "Dracula" will get contemporary treatment, Vargo said; he'll treat it as a Gothic romance, not a horror story.
Byers thinks a variety of performances has helped the Oakland to diversify its audience. Of the people who showed up for singer Jason Budd's cabaret show last month, "99 percent of them were new. They had never been here before," he said.
It has also helped to broaden the pool of local actors. "I don't want a stable of the same people appearing in every show," Vargo said.
The college crowd turns out to support friends who appear in shows, Moretti noted.
Next, children: TNT is thinking even younger. It isn't known for producing shows with large casts of child actors, but that's what was needed for the upcoming musical "Oliver!"
Turnout at auditions was so good that plans are now being developed for a youth theater summer camp next year. If all goes well, that could lead to a children's play during the regular season in 2002-2003, Philibin said.

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