by James Haro
Friends, I am coveted.
I don’t mean to sound like an egotist, but who can blame me? I’ve been assured in countless ways that the audience group I belong to is the most sought after. A recent audience development project I was assigned had me play in to this notion, legitimizing it in an academic sense. My class was charged with creating various marketing mixes for a few shows being featured at the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival. The target market was, as you probably guessed, college kids – But why? Why the fuss? Why the effort? Why the hassle?
Should this group really be catered to in such a way by the performing arts world? Should we really be giving them any more underserved special attention? Postcards are slid into their dorm rooms and they slide them right back out. So is there a solution? What gets Gen-Y to the theatre? Melissa Hillman, artistic director of the Bay Area’s Impact Theatre, wrote a very insightful article on just this topic last week. Her suggestions were simple and hard to argue with. According to Hillman the main inhibitors are high prices, boring or unexciting content, and a general ignorance about how best to take advantage of online social media outlets. She gives a very common sense analysis of the disconnect between arts organizations and young people that I as a young person can attest to. Her sagest observation, which sums up perfectly the point of her article, follows thusly:
“If you’re going to condemn the under-40 crowd for not dropping $60 on your play about middle-class, middle-aged white people and their midlife crises, you should also condemn Grandma because she’s not stocking her DVD collection with $60 of Robot Chicken.”
Young people have an array of cheap and comfortable entertainment options. They know a cat playing a keyboard will likely make them smile, they are not so sure a Shakespeare play will, and why should they pay more than $12 to be potentially confused when they can go see the next Christopher Nolan movie instead. As my actor friend Lauren Duckworth sarcastically says, this target audience is just “SOOO elusive.”
There is also something to be said about certain theatre companies not necessarily needing to bend to the attention span of the younger crowd because it is not in the nature of the company. An organization needs only to examine their mission statement to see what their chances are. If a company’s mission statement is dry, stuffy, makes you yawn, or lacking the words “daring,” “bold,” “exciting,” “compelling,” or any variation of descriptors which imply putting an effort toward trying something different, than that company has no business marketing to the cat video audience. There are exceptions, sure, but they should not be counted on.
What I’ve discovered as well is that my peers, the group already theatre leaning, wants to get their hands on the thing that they can own. What do I mean? Give them something they can hold over their friends in a conversation. “Guess what I saw this weekend?” Tap into their desire to be the trendsetter, the one who is in “the know,” and their interest will be sparked.
Most of all I’ve found through conversations with my arts minded and not so arts minded peers is that name recognition trumps all else. “Harry Potter is in a musical? Don’t know who Frank Loesser is, but I’m interested.” “Sheila Callaghan premier? Don’t know squat about this theatre company, but I’m interested.” “I hated reading Our Town in school but this post card sure is bizarre looking. Only $10 for students? I’m interested.” Of course, there is a section of this generation that is and perhaps forever will be actively avoiding social interaction. They are content in their dark rooms with their bright screens and their sore eyes and this shouldn’t be held against them. We should not be presenting theatre as the answer, but as a viable option which still after thousands of years of history has some neat tricks up its sleeve.
With all the tumbling about over how to get young people to the theatre its easy to brush over the question of why, or if, we want them there in the first place. Are we audience building, trying to salvage the future of the industry (which I don’t believe is going anywhere)? Or is it an exercise in ego, an opportunity to present our theatre as the hip new cultural mecca? WARNING: Young people don’t always shower, they scoff, they put their feet up on everything, they don’t say please or thank you, and they think everything belongs to them. However, they are clever, they are savvy, they are not content with the same old thing, and if you give them something worth talking about, they will talk about it. I suppose this is what makes them valuable allies.
People flock to where they feel they belong and are welcome. This is the simplest and most ignored rule by some arts organizations and their administrators who at times are self-congratulatory, pompous, and turn their noses up at the uninitiated. Most young people think theatre is outside of their reach and not for them, due in part to these attitudes. When it comes to attracting a younger audience, this is the fundamental notion that needs to change. All good things will follow.