Thoughts from a Youngster on Attracting Youngsters to the Playhouse
I’m a young. It’s what my friends and I call ourselves—the youngs. And indeed, in my country of residence, Israel, I’ll be a young for a long while yet.
This past month, while visiting my family in Seattle, WA, I went to the theatre a few times. I was shocked to realize that at twenty-six, I no longer qualified for a “young” audience ticket. Even further, I was shocked to discover that the price differential was approximately forty-fifty dollars. Finally, I was shocked to sit through performances with half-empty houses.
As a young, then, I’m prone to getting a little hot and bothered about things. Hopping mad. I started to ask everyone my age (or thereabouts) if they went to see plays, and if they did, if it was something they found affordable. Most people my age, in my highly scientific survey of asking random bar-patrons and my high-school friends, do not see the theatre. Nor do they find it affordable. In fact, many wished it cost less because they want to be people who see theatre.
There is a not-small amount of worry about developing and training new audiences to replace the (frankly) dying set of current subscribers. “How do we attract younger audiences?!” “We’ll throw a $70 special event!”
Friends, this doesn’t work. We, the youngs, want to see theatre. We want to see brave, fearless, and honest theatre. More importantly, we want to be able to afford it.
Being asked to spend $70 for a regular house seat, because I’m one year older than Joe Post-Bacchalaureate, and then being sat in a house which is at best half-full, is infuriating. Knowing that the house could be significantly more full at a lower price point is maddening.
Planning seasons is hard. Trying to keep subscribers interested. Trying to attract younger audiences and convert them into new subscribers. Meeting your mandate as the “Premier Clown-based Shakespearean Site-Specific Theatre of the West-Cascades,” while attempting to also meet that amazing grant’s criteria. There are a lot of balls in the air, and it seems like the one that gets forgotten is the one that doesn’t worry about the bottom line.
I believe that the future of theatre depends on abandoning season-building against scarcity. I’ve long felt that as a theatre artist, as a director and a playwright, I have a duty to make the best art I can not because it speaks my truth, but because it educates my audience about something. Maybe it educates them on how to sit still in a strangely shaped immersive arena. Maybe it teaches them about opening themselves up to the process of grief. Possibly it even inculcates the value of paying for art! But the message that every production is at some level striving to get across, if at the very least about the story of the play, is best served when we make it most fearlessly.
Fearlessness, of course, is terrifying. It demands going to the edge of comfort, and willingly stepping out into the unknown abyss. Fearlessness is very hard to sell to subscribers. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in the past month substituting irony and cynicism for fearlessness—irony is, at its core, a mechanism for appearing fearless without having to do the work.
These are hard things I’m saying. Hopefully, at this point, you, my reader, are screaming at the screen something along the lines of “who are you, little boy, to try and mandate how we plan our seasons?!”
I’m really a nobody. But I believe that we have arrived in a world where if we want to be relevant, we must “art” as big as we can. We must be overly ambitious, and damn the consequences, because if we aren’t, our souls die for sure, and if we are we may simply fail and hit another mark.
After all, I’m not the only person in the twenty-five to forty demographic who wants to see good, gripping work. I’m not the only person who wants to pay a fair price for a fair piece. And I’m not the only person who’s tired of saying this.
The following are some lessons I’ve learned from the Tel Aviv theatre scene that could apply to the rest of the world, as tools to encourage younger audience participation:
1. Affordable subscriptions. The major theatre houses of Tel Aviv have decently priced subscriptions; and in addition to that, they provide special subscriptions to students and soldiers. They’re limited to the back half of the house, but for $45 dollars, you have access to six mainstage events across the season. In Seattle, the ACTPASS is starting to get there.
2. Make expansive seasons. In the states, many regional theatres are doing a packed season if they have ten plays in their nine-month run. The Seattle Repertory Theatre has approximately twenty days of overlap between its two mainstage theatres (Jinx Monsoon’s revue not withstanding; which, confidential to Seattle Rep: do more of this). That makes it harder to get into the audience, because some of these great options are only here for short engagements, with limited houses. Coupled with the high cost of a ticket, and it’s hard to turn to the theatre for entertainment. In Tel Aviv, almost every major theatre is producing several works on several stages at once—both their own productions, and supporting smaller companies by renting their other performance spaces. The options, then, are tremendous, and at times incredibly overwhelming. I once went to the wrong theater looking for show A, which company B was producing at site 3 of theater C: I’d arrived at site 2 of theater C where company D was putting on show E. We worked it out.
3. Work that feels worth the money. I can’t tell you the number of times recently that I have been asked to fork over a ton of money, money I barely have, to see a show in a half-empty house, which didn’t really deliver on even the basic theatrical contract of a catharsis. In part this is because I was really angry about paying a lot of money to sit in an empty theatre; part of this is because I’m seeing a worrying trend of using irony and cynicism to cover for true fearlessness. Young people will show up for fearless theatre.
4. Widen the range of “young” audience member ages. Twenty-five isn’t the same career game changer that it used to be. Lots of the twenty-five-year-olds I know are just getting the first job that meets payroll and has benefits. This doesn’t mean they can suddenly magically afford the full price ticket. In Israel, between army service, post-army “grand journeys,” and other cultural realities that mean a late arrival to university and thus “adult” jobs, it isn’t uncommon to see “youth” tickets sold up to and including thirty-five-year-olds. What this means is that this audience is considered, therefore, valuable.
5. Trust us to come. The fear that young audiences won’t come is trenchant, tangible, and offputting. There is nothing more likely, in my experience, to keep a target audience from coming than gimmicky tricks attempting to make the experience more palatable.
I’ve said a lot. Many of you are probably still asking who the hell I am to just sort of proclaim things about my “generation.” I’m just a youngish theatre lover and artist, who also worries about building new audiences for the next generation of theatre. But I don’t think cocktail parties and engagement events around yet another production of Romeo and Juliet, or Our Town, is going to get us there. My cohort is diverse. My cohort is large and contains multitudes. My cohort really values emotionally honest and accessible art, and my cohort doesn’t need to be convinced of the value of theatre. We just need to be supported in coming.
Originally published in HowlRound