A million free theater tickets to people younger than 26? American producers will no doubt be green with envy over the British government’s largess. But reports about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s initiative, designed to spark a love affair between Shakespeare, Shaw and Stoppard and a generation that has spent its youth blankly gazing at screens, made me wonder if there might not be another, less politically correct reason for the program.

For years, there have been whispered complaints among unpensioned theatergoers about the “gray menace” — you know, the invasion of cumbersome canes and aisle-blocking walkers at matinees, the crinkling of lozenge wrappers during pivotal plot points and that unignorable combination of listening devices and hearing aids that tend to explode just as opening numbers start getting good.

Theater producers are perennially wringing their hands about the difficulty of attracting twentysomethings to their musty warhorse offerings. But couldn’t this ticket giveaway be a sneaky way to lower the median age of audiences from where it’s been for the last few decades (somewhere around 62, by my unscientific estimate)?

Playwright Richard Greenberg stirred up controversy a few years back when he spoke out against the geriatric cacophony of Manhattan Theatre Club’s audiences. His comments may have been misjudged, but he’s not the only one to have wondered why seniors can’t get their sucking candies all lined up before the curtain rise.

With economic Armageddon upon us, there’s no chance of this kind of cultural food-stamps program happening in the States any time soon. And that gives us time to reflect on some of its flaws. For example, do we really want to make 27-year-olds feel like they’re over-the-hill? And will constant texting and BlackBerry-fondling be quieter than fishing for Kleenexes and butterscotches in bottomless pocketbooks?

All joking aside, without the AARP crowd, American theater would have collapsed ages ago. If anyone deserves free tickets, it’s those stalwart patrons on fixed incomes who have made theater a regular part of their lives. If college kids would rather replace yet another iPod left at the gym than see a show at the Mark Taper Forum or Geffen Playhouse, so be it. As adulthood grows more complicated, so too will the desire for more complex drama.

In the meantime, let’s advocate for a theater that’s affordable for people of all ages. One that invites everyone on a risk-taking adventure, without having to justify exorbitant ticket prices. Age discrimination (or favoritism) is never a good idea. Think about it: If we’re to go that route, where would it end? A twenty-dollar Treasury check for watching “60 Minutes” and the “NewsHour”?

Charles McNulty
Los Angeles Times

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