For as long as I've been covering theater and dance in Seattle, I've heard performance-minded people complain about the "blue hairs"—a demographic of old boogeymen with conservative tastes but liberal pocketbooks who push regional theater towards tamer programming by voting with their dollars.
Even before I started covering theater, back when I worked at the ACT ticket office—way back, when people still waited eagerly for the annual announcement of the next year's season—some plays were dismissed as "blue hair shows." They can't all be exciting and new, we told ourselves. You gotta throw a few to the blue hairs. (In retrospect, I realize it was callow to assume that dusty plays are categorically less exciting than new ones. We were young.)
This assumption about a phantom constituency of relatively moneyed, relatively conservative theatergoers was borne out by the fact that when people called to complain about the newer, "edgier" plays, they were typically older. It didn't occur to us at the time that anyone who called to complain about anything was typically older.
The first time that assumption was seriously challenged happened at ACT as well. I was watching some new, grim, unsettling play—maybe The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh?—and sitting next to an ancient-looking couple. During intermission, and I think even before intermission, several people walked out, looking offended and put-upon.
They were all young—not a single blue hair on their collectively aggrieved heads.
As we settled back into our seats for act two, the lady half of the couple and I started talking about the people who'd left in a huff. "Young people are so conservative," she said (I'm paraphrasing). "We older folks have been around the block a few times, we've seen more of the world—it's harder to shock us."
I thought about that lady earlier this afternoon, when I saw an article in the Telegraph about a new, 500-seat, contemporary dance theater that will be built in London because retirees can't get enough of the new stuff:
A new generation of “daring and adventurous” pensioners are embracing edgy contemporary dance works, it has been claimed, as one of the world’s foremost venues announces plans for a new theatre to cope with the demand...
Georgie Shields, director of development at Sadler’s Wells, added research carried out by the company had shown a body of “incredibly adventurous, open-minded” older visitors were increasingly willing to embrace challenging modern works.
She added some older donors had already specified their donations must be ear-marked for “risk-taking” and “daring” new commissions, rather than continuing the status quo.
Research carried out over a recent festival showed the number of visitors over the age of 65 now matches those aged between 20-24.
Compounding the issue: This generation of "adventurous pensioners" grew up in a different cultural moment than the new pensioners of 10 or 20 years ago.
The myth of the blue hairs might be in its twilight.