Three woman smile for the camera. In between them are statues of men in 19th century outfits arguing.
Photo by Kendra Scott

Generation Abe: Programming for a Millennial Audience at Ford’s Theatre

4 min read

In an effort to foster a connection with the Millennial demographic, Ford’s and other theatre companies are developing programming that caters to their interests, offering social incentives and ticket discounts to young theatregoers.

Millennials (ages 18-35) represent the largest population in the United States, but compared with older generations, they are underserved by cultural organizations.

A ranger gives a tour to a group of five people under age 35 as part of "Generation Abe" at Ford's Theatre.
A small group of Generation Abe attendees explore Ford’s Theatre.

In September 2014, Ford’s Theatre expanded its Under 35 program, which already offered discounted tickets to patrons younger than 35, to also include post-show receptions. At these events, patrons can meet cast members, talk about the show or the production process and hang out with friends. It’s an opportunity to not only gain exclusive access to the Ford’s Theatre historic site, but also to network with other young professionals. 

Millennials and the Arts

According to the Wallace Foundation, dining out, social networking, streaming TV programs and hanging out with friends are preferred activities of Millennials. Jim DeGood, Director of Client Services and Nariman Tulepkaliev, Senior Analyst for arts consulting firm TRG Arts, suggests that Millennials are still “dating” theatres and playing the field. Those organizations that work to continually engage this demographic beyond that stage are more likely to sustain patronage and fostering a committed relationship between Millennials and the arts. 

Three young patrons enjoy free drinks in the Ford's Theatre board room following a performance.
Young patrons enjoy a drink in the Ronald O. Perelman Board Room after a performance. Photo by OnTap.

From Under 35 to Generation Abe

When we expanded the Under 35 program in 2014, the assumption was that anyone under the age of 35, children included, could participate in our after-show activity. This meant that we sometimes saw families with young children at our check-in. We knew that we needed to be clearer in our messaging if we wanted to target a specific audience. So, within the last year, Ford’s has adapted our Under 35 event programming to focus on patrons ages 21-35.  But the codes for discounted tickets are still available for all patrons Under 35.

The happy hour-esque social events that occur after performances are organized and run by Ford’s staff, most of whom are Millennials themselves. This gives young patrons who may be interested in careers in the theatre an opportunity to speak with our young professionals, to network and to gain first-hand access to upcoming events and opportunities.

Through feedback surveys and speaking with patrons at our events, we also found that the name “Under 35” could be off-putting to the group we were looking to serve. So, we decided to poll our current Under 35 patrons to pick a new name. We received some good suggestions, some great and some silly and others that, while creative, don’t best suit our mission and purpose. We narrowed down suggestions, even tweaking and creating our own unique combinations from those suggested. From that process, and with the approval of Ford’s senior staff, the new “Generation Abe” was created. 

A young woman with shoulder-length curly black hair wears dark glasses and holds a sign with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: We are not enemies, but friends.
A patron at our Generation Abe: Museum Night.

But what about our history-loving millennials?

We realize how unique our site is and that, while a reception after a show is an amazing opportunity, we may miss those who are interested in our history if we limit our programming to theatre alone.  So, in 2017 we launched Generation Abe: Museum Night, a summer happy hour event where Generation Abe patrons could explore the historic theatre and basement museum after hours. Like our show receptions, Museum Night allowed for exclusive, semi-restricted access to the site after hours and an opportunity to network with young Ford’s staff as well as peers who share an interest in history, theatre and the arts. It was a huge success and we plan to host more.

Two young men share a laugh in the lobby of Ford's Theatre during a Generation Abe Museum Night event.
Interested in joining Generation Abe yourself?

Like the post show reception, Museum Night is staffed by Ford’s own young professional group. We share with patrons some of our favorite things about Ford’s Theatre, including fun-fact conversation starters and little known details about Ford’s or the Petersen House, President Abraham Lincoln himself, the First Family, the Civil War and related topics. These details are things that the staff could only learn from being at Ford’s, constantly submerged in the history of the site. 

Opportunities like Generation Abe at Ford’s help us sustain the growing Millennial audience. As we continue to develop and better understand the interests of the group, we are learning how to better serve them. It is our hope that we will be able to continue to expand the Generation Abe programming, further cultivating the relationship between us and the future of theatre audiences.

Erika Scott is Artistic Programming Manager at Ford’s Theatre. For updates and other information on Generation Abe programming, follow her on twitter @Musiqal_onE.

Headshot for Erika Scott.

Erika Scott is Artistic Programming Manager at Ford’s Theatre.

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