Yeah, isn't that a good question? And of course there's no specific answer. I notice an article in the New York Times recently that suggested that the audience for plays is about 1/5 the audience for musicals and in the UK they're saying that a name will attract an audience. People go to see the actor not the show.
Come back to community theatre groups or small fringe theatres and the argument is ,if you want to get an audience do a comedy and I meet people in the street who say, Yeah it was good but I'm sick of icecream I want some steak.
What would I do? From my observations the bulk of our audiences is made up of 30 something women and to build an audience my strategy is to find the sort of contemporary play that this audience will relate to
I live in a small city (about 70,000 population). Our community theatre presents standard "little theatre" plays. For example, this seaons performances included: Gypsy, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Man of LaMancha, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Walk in the Woods, and a children's performance of Witches.
For the first time, the troupe was allowed by the Board of Trustees to perform something a little bit different than the usual fare: "True West". Superbly done and well-received. Hopefully, it's success will lead to more plays of this calliber.
As for the question "who is the audience"... I think each audience is different. We learned this a couple of years ago with our church drama troupe. At that time, our church had two morning services and we would perform the same comedy sketch for each service, both of which comprised members of the church. It never failed. The responses of the two audiences differed dramatically (no pun intended). If one group laughed at a gag, the other group was deathly silent, and vice versa. You just never know.
What an interesting inquiry. Since I'm in grad school getting an MFA in Acting in a small illinois town, I've been confronted with the reality that those who select the seasons for our work have to think of their audience to ensure their survival. Tried trivial treasures, beloved musicals and pieces with large casts (for the slew of undergeads) can be found regularly. My experience here is that the audiences are mainly comprised of older (north of 60), middle class suburbanites who want to escape for 2 hours of their drone lives into happy, peppy people holding hands. In New York the Broadway scene seems to bring the same types with bigger bottom lines, more fur etc... Unless you're in the Village-- think much younger, edgier, hungrier audience members.
Write for yourself. I'm a big 'do it for the audience' type of person, but first and foremost, it needs to be good for you.
And another thought (one I've carried for the past 3 years) is to write for the audience that I want it to be: young professionals - men and women who do not attend theater. That was my goal with "A Classic Romance." Got a few of them there and they enjoyed the water. :)
Hey, guys, let's go back to the question of, "Who determines a play's success," at the top of this string.
Even though an audience can certainly have influence over a single production, the reviewer has, in my opinion, great power over the play's future. I recently had a play flop at a community theatre because the local "christian" radio guy pronounced that my play had too much of the wrong kind of language - they actually spent several hours discussing the language of plays that day on the radio station. Result was an average of 35 paid attendance in a 1200 seat auditorium in a city much the same size as Luana reports. Here in the buckle of the bible belt times can be rough. I still have hopes for better reviews in more progressive venues.
Critics have a great influence on the overall success.