The Playgoer: Young Audiences follow-up

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Young Audiences follow-up

I'd like to piggyback on some of the many thought provoking comments so far on my post over the weekend on the problem of young people not being theatregoers.

I definitely agree with Contrapositive that seeing BAD theatre (or should I say, lame theatre) may be right up there as the number one cause of the current apathy. We're talking about how one's impression can be formed by clumsy amateur high school experiences--or stuffy professional shows you were bussed in from school to see with your class. But even in adulthood, without good inspiring examples and positive experiences, who blames people for not going out of their way to find more? Who knows what to do about that. There's always been bad theatre. But at least it raises the imperative to make the conditions all around more conducive to good theatre. (The hiring of good actors, good spaces, etc.)

This is where media comes in, too--in spreading the word when something really, really is good. So we know to take our apathetic friends to it.

Another problem in what makes for a bad theatre experience is bad seats. Uncomfortable seats, bad air conditioning in summer, sure. But I'm thinking of when all one can afford is the last row of a Broadway balcony for a very intimate play. No wonder that at even some of the finest shows (The Weir, for example) some still wonder what all the fuss was about.

Let me insert here a mantra of mine: Nothing will turn a theatre skeptic around faster than a good affordable front row seat in front of a great actor.

Speaking of...Carnieboy raises lots of interesting and valuable theoretical points about the power of acting. However, I honestly don't think poor training or lazy actors (actors who could be doing better work, that is) is really the problem. In New York, at least, there are many, many finely trained stage actors doing great work. Problem is, as many as there are, they're still spread too thin in this massive scene of ours. Plus, they need to eat, so they're not all working on showcase codes.

The result is, most of what you see downtown can't get access to enough of those actors to make that kind of magic Carnie speaks of happen often enough. The "bad acting" I see most often on our smaller stages does not reflect lack of training so much as lack of talent. That is, lack of such essential natural gifts as a strong presence, imaginative characterization, and intense engagement with stage action. Anyone who's done a non-equity casting call in NYC will probably agree you feel lucky to see just a few people who have those qualities, no matter how much or little formal training they may have.

As for uptown acting, I'll conceded the problem there is blandness, probably the result of a cookie-cutter, success driven ethic of our elite MFA programs, which results in lots of pretty people onstage looking pretty, but watchable only in that way. However--I don't think that's necessarily a turn off to our younger audiences. (Ah, but maybe they'll discover that on stage a pretty face does not a presence make. The voice and body become the source of charisma. This was most apparent in, to look at a Broadway opera, Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" whose stars looked hot on the poster, but oddly their thin voices made you realize how Pavoratti could ever become a sex symbol.)

So I don't think the answer is better acting schools. Again, it's how we create an economy that supports stage actors more consistently that lets them stay in NY (or work on regional stages) and pursue meaningful projects for scale pay without having to go west for pilot season every year.

There is something to the comment about the "feminine" associations of theatre. For young male audiences, at least. Hence all the hoopla in the NYT last year over "Glengarry" and "Spamalot," as well in those shows' own marketing. I'm not sure what the solution is. But I believe the kind of ignorant culturally illiterate he-man masculinity promoted by our current political leadership doesn't help much. It definitely has a ripple effect in the popular coverage--especially on TV--where you get the feeling theatre is for "fags." Hence the notorious outing of gay servicemen recently simply by associating them with "community theatre."

However, if this gender divide thing were true--why aren't the under-40 women saving the theatre, then?

As for Carnieboy's argument about theatre being too predictable (including plot, if I understand correctly), I'm not sure. Younger folks might fear a kind of blah-blah-blah, men-in-tights sameness to, say, classical theatre. (Yes "men in tights" brings up the gender thing again, doesn't it.) But I can say from experience that classic, famous plays do continue to draw. When I reflect on high profile (ok, Broadway) productions in recent years where I saw a noticeably younger and hipper audience, I think of Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet, Bernadette Peters in Gypsy, and Long Day's Journey. In each case I'm convinced that it was the "classic"/"classy" aspect of it all that was the draw. To see a classic musical or Shakespeare on the Great White Way with a big star is the Classic Broadway Experience, and they're willing to pay for that. At least once a year. (Or at least their parents paid for them, which I suspected in many cases.)

In other words--never underestimate the allure of the familiar.

If what the younger audience seeks is really unpredictability, nonlinear, trippy experiences--then they should go to the avant-garde, right? But they don't. They do go to Blue Man Group and De La Guardia for those reasons, yes. But what are we calling that.... No, I'm convinced that when it comes to theatre, even hippest of Gen X-ers and Y-ers--folks raised on a diet of David Lynch and Radiohead, even--are shockingly conservative. But maybe that's what happens when you grow up completely alienated from theatre and think it froze in the 50s.

Let me digress into a brief example--take a look at the marketing of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. LIke it or not, this is a young person's play if there ever was one. Violent, raucous, irreverent, both romantic and cynical. It features one of the greatest shoot 'em up sequences of stage violence ever choreographed (shout out to fight-man David Brimmer) that instantly invited comparison among early audiences to Tarrantino... So what became the official ad campaign when it transferred to Broadway? "Funny, Funny, Funny" say all the quotes. (Even "outrageous", which makes it sounds downright wacky.) That, and that there's a "surprise ending". Ooooh. But the violence comes up nowhere. Why? I'm sure it's because in the Broadway marketers minds, that would scare people away. Because--in their minds, at least--people who go to the theatre have been and will always be very middle of the road suburbanites. The radio ad I heard on WQXR for Lieutenant was very revealing: it featured a really grating very yuppie thirty-ish couple (because we all know it's wives who drag their husbands to the theatre) prattling on about how "funny" the show was. And, ooh, don't give away that ending. I imagined the kind of indie-film and indie-rock loving youngster we keep positing listening to this and wretching. And, thus, missing something he or she might actually have enjoyed if they heard it was "Kill Bill" meets "The Sopranos" by way of Ireland.

(Two caveats. Yes, a radio ad on the classical QXR is not aimed at a hip audience anyway. And the marketers would also counter--you have to aim at rich and middle aged yuppies because they're the only ones who can afford theatre tickets!...I will say it was a better ad than the first version I heard--of a guy literally doing a Lucky Charms impersonation while a straight man "translated" from the Irish.)

So here's our project--let's bring them our theatre hating friends up to date. Theatre doesn't have to be what they remember from high school, or what Broadway marketers tell them. Yes, take them to classic theatre when it's really well done. But also show them there are people their own age working for and writing in the theatre who are drawing on all the same rock and media references they are.


Playgoer said...

By the way, the result of the "Inishmore" marketing scheme?
"“Lieutenant” has had trouble filling the seats at the Lyceum since it reopened [on Broadway]in May." Today's NYTimes (8/16/06).

Art said...

Near the end of your post you hit on the problem perfectly.

"Kill Bill Meets the Sopranos, by way of Ireland."

My alter ego says the following:

"Sounds great. I just watched Kill Bill and an episode of the Sopranos on On Demand Cable. Ever heard of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells? That was an awesome movie, it came out about 5 years ago. Come to think of it, didn't Bob Hoskins do something like this about 20 years ago The Long Good... Well, anyway, I'm going to be checking out this great new video game that has an incredible visual sense to it. Gotta Run...Oh, I might check out that innismore thing, sounds cool. I get off work at about 7:00, then I need to run some errands, meet up with some friends... I'll meet you there about 9:00PM Does that sound good? Oh, wait better make it 9:30. What? What's the matter?"

Playgoer said...

I see your point, YS. But I maintain that it doesn't always have to be that competitive, one activity doesn't have to exclude the other.

Your point would be that if I like video games and movies, why would I shell out even $30-40 (let alone $100) to see a similar genre on stage.

My counter is that this might be one of the ONLY kind of plays to attract people that are watching Tarantino and playing Grand Theft Auto. (Ok, maybe not GTA. What's the more respectable game now?) I agree that this won't get them out of the house every week. But maybe every few months.

I guess my point with Inishmore particularly is that if I were putting up THAT show-- I would definitely work to get the Sopranos/Tarantino crowd into my theatre, since they would enjoy it, and maybe come back for more

June said...

We're missing the hip factor--and it's one that's hard to manufacture (the "targets" run a mile when they sense they're being pandered to). Grand Theft Auto, since you just mentioned it, is a game for renegades. All that violence and anti-social behavior is unsanctioned and tut-tutted over, and that's a big reason for its popularity. (Yes, it has to play well, but we all agree that once you get folks to the theater, the product has to be engaging.)

The theater? It's for old people, homos, and drama society losers. OK, I definitely belong in one of those categories (the second!), possibly two, and maybe even three, so I guess that puts me in the target audience, but many arts-loving, money-spending young people are turned off by theater's image.

Yesterday, I went to a fine fringe show (Air Guitar). It had rock music (metal even), and finding-oneself issues, and growing-up issues. Now, OK, fringe runs are brief, and it's a little tricky to figure out the schedule--and this show started at 6:15, which would often be a problem for me. But, but, but, shouldn't the fringe-- young playwrights and subjects and $15 a pop (and not many embarrassing wrinklies in the crowd)--be drawing in those elusive young audiences?

There were young people there, but there were lots and lots of empty seats, too. Mostly what I was struck by were the "festival types"--this is my first NY fringe show, but I recognize the type from my own festival-going (SIFF pass-hole in the house!). It's awesome to see that excitement and energy and mania--but why so few of them?

Playgoer said...

June--I'd be fascinated to see how, in your best objective journalistic prose, of course, you describe just what a "Fringe Type" is.

Seriously. Because I've been wondering about the Fringe, too. In a hopeful vein. But if you're right, then the Fringe is attracting mainly the same old theatre freaks and not the youth at large.

June said...

I only know "festival types"--obsessives who vaguely ruin their lives during the weeks that "their" festivals run (cutting a few too many meetings to catch obscure shows, having the only meals they eat for three weeks be gobbled down while they make their way to the next venue, and--unfortunately--often a bit dismissive of folks who don't have the festival bug. And then of course there are the competing festival-going gangs, but this is getting a bit esoteric, and since I've seen a grand total of one New York fringe show, perhaps I shouldn't draw too many conclusions.

Tonight I saw Kiki & Herb--another show that could draw in the cool crowd. Lots of tickets available at TKTS, so relatively inexpensive for Broadway (though tonight's house was very full), very hip song selection, right-on patter. But will it? It might, actually.