Report says arts should engage and develop older audiences

Teddy, a new rock'n'roll musical at the New Wolsey Theatre attracted audiences from across the age r

Teddy, a new rock'n'roll musical at the New Wolsey Theatre attracted audiences from across the age range but was particularly popular with older audiences. Pictured: George Parker and Molly Chesworth as Josie and Teddy. Photo: Scott Rylander - Credit: Archant

A new report has suggested that theatres and arts organisations should be planning to engage more with an older audience as society ages. Arts editor Andrew Clarke suggests that older audiences don’t want to be pandered to, rather they want to be creatively challenged and engaged.

Rope, by Patrick Hamilton, at the New Wolsey Theatre. L-R Phoebe Sparrow & Sam Jenkins-Shaw. Classic

Rope, by Patrick Hamilton, at the New Wolsey Theatre. L-R Phoebe Sparrow & Sam Jenkins-Shaw. Classic drama re-invented for a modern age is popular with mature audiences. Photo: Mark Sepple - Credit: Archant

It will come as no surprise to many of us that we live in an aging society. According to current statistics 18% of the British population is over the age of 65 by 2030 that figure will have risen to 22%.

We are living longer and, by and large, living healthier, more active lives. Retired people are engaging with the arts on a more regular basis than ever before – both as active participants and as audiences.

A new report from the development agency Nesta, commissioned by the Arts Council, about how the arts sector should react to this trend. The study says in its introduction: “One of the more predictable trends arts and cultural organisations will need to engage with over the next decade is the shift towards an ageing population.”

This is true, you only have to cast a glance around your local theatre to count the grey heads around you but arts organisations have to be careful not to jump to conclusions or draw the wrong assumptions from the phrase ageing population.

The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman has been a box office winner thanks to the enthusiastic s

The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman has been a box office winner thanks to the enthusiastic support of older audiences who appreciate a movie that dazzles but is not yet another super-hero flick. Photo: 20th Century Fox - Credit: Archant


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It would be a mistake to assume that an ageing population would want a constant diet of Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and Agatha Christie. Any self-respecting theatregoer is attracted by quality and imagination rather than tradition. What any theatre audience wants is a balance of well performed classic material and groundbreaking new work.

You can’t segregate an audience by age. Innovation will always be attractive but what older audiences are less tolerant of, is work where the concept over-rides the content and directors play with half-thought through concepts for effect. For example: setting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a family-run jam factory and having the assassination happen on the production line while Brutus is staging a hostile take-over of the board. In such a setting the original intent of the play is so overwhelmed by the concept that the audience is likely to be less than impressed with a perfectly good play being messed around with. They don’t demand that everyone walk around in togas, wearing laurel leaves but they do expect the spirit of the play to be preserved.

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It’s a mistake to assume that older audiences do not embrace innovation and new work. By 2030 those heading towards retirement will be technologically savvy: something the Nesta report recognises calling them the first “fully digitally immersed generation”.

This means that they will be less impressed at effects for effects sake. They are more likely to embrace groundbreaking immersive art, meaningful cinema, and multi-media dance. The older audience responds to art and culture with substance rather than something decorated with some superficial razzle-dazzle.

Mature audiences appreciate well-written, well-acted dramas that are about ordinary people as with G

Mature audiences appreciate well-written, well-acted dramas that are about ordinary people as with Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird. Picture: UNIVERSAL PICTURES - Credit: Archant

It is older audiences who have embraced films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Darkest Hour, Dunkirk as well as cross-generational hits like Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country and the Hugh Jackman musical extravaganza The Greatest Showman.

An older audience is a discerning audience. They just won’t go and see anything because its on. Arts and cultural organisations all ready realise that there is no such thing as one homogenous audience but rather lots of smaller niche audiences with, hopefully, overlapping interests. Older audiences are less willing to squander their time or their money on something which is either tedious or overblown. Novelty won’t cut the mustard, so there has to be something thoughtful lying behind an impressively spectacular stage show or cinema blockbuster.

This also applies to music events, exhibitions, performance art and dance. The Nesta report urges the arts sector to think carefully about how “they can effectively engage with an ageing population, one which, at least for the next decade,will have a far greater proportion of leisure time to invest in cultural attractions and participation.”

I would argue that by ignoring age and instead focusing on the quality and innovation of the work being offered to all ages then you will automatically get the older audience. Older audiences want to be involved. Look at the take up for older dance classes, amateur theatre, university of the third age courses and you will be left in no doubt that older people have no desire to be left behind or to live in the past. They want to be engaged in the present.

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