Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Seeking Young Audiences

My spies tell me that this has been the abstract desire of theater administrators for at least thirty years. As a palpable fissure in generational interests and activities emerged so too did the anxiety that what we so long believed an inherent and unshakable good - the theater - would slip like nickelodeons into a background of irrelevance. Indeed, since the advent of cinema a certain kind of person has dreaded the whole-scale collapse of live theater.

The condition is famous. Theater audiences are old. They will keep getting older and then die, and if the storybooks are right, there's nothing we can do to stop them from dying. When they die, no one will take their place, the theaters will be empty and then close, and all that money will be spent on video games.

But, what is a young audience? Is it children? Is it twenty-three year-olds? Thirty-three? Forty-three? As a member of at least one of these groups I sometimes wonder, what's so great about us? Sure, I'd love to see more plays that I like, but who would have thought that every artistic director in the country also wants to do more plays that I like? I don't have any money. (n.b. we could solve both of these problems if you hire me to do your "youth programming," whatever that would mean.)

But children, to a certain extent, are covered. Children's Theatre is an incredibly potent idea and one that everyone should take seriously. We have companies dedicated to performing plays for children all over the city, and I imagine that there could be more. Moreover, though there should always be more money for arts education, there is some, and the institution of the high school play and (I suppose) the high school musical is strong enough that we need never fear its disappearance. So everyone knows that the theater exists. That's a starting place.

Then, the issue is not awareness, we might say, but something more like, "Remember theater? You're invited, it's for you!" And then, the game is making that true. And if we can convince the twenty and thirty year-olds that the theater is for them, and have that be true, and then they come, and they like it, and they come back, and bring their friends, and if we can do that every year for a good percent of these young people, we'll never have to worry again.

But if the question is only about awareness that the theater is for them, we could, on the other hand, wait until they're fifty.

Before people die, if all goes according to plan, they turn fifty. Think about it. If you could get enough fifty year olds to keep your company above water, would you still care if I come? Is what you mean Audience Development and age just seems the most easily conquered subset? Do you want me or my money? I don't have any money.

So if you wanted, you could just make your case to people - "Hey, remember theater? You're invited, it's for you!" - once they turn fifty. And the work, or the exercise or the game or whatever, of getting twenty and thirty year-olds into the theater could be "left" to groups like The Neo-Futurists or any of several other companies that do it really well, like theater for children is "left" to companies formed for that exact purpose. As they age and see theater they will look for theater speaking to their interests and then, perhaps, walk into your house.

My friend Gerald is a jazz pianist who talks about his desire to play for people his own age. I think there's something in that for theater-makers too. Also, new plays are likely to appeal to newer audiences (ex. Chad Diety), and so as a facet of new play development a theater is perhaps wise to cultivate a younger crowd.

So there are reasons you might want me in your theater, some of you. And I know I'm playing devil's advocate, but do all of you? Do you all need me? This strikes me as Last Theater on Earth thinking: a kind of theater that is endemic to arts organizations even at this moment of great collaborative energy.

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