Fostering the Next Generation of American Theatre Audiences

June 30, 2010 in Blog by Jacob Watson

By Jacob Watson, Education & Community Engagement Intern

Photo by Teresa M. Rende

On Saturday, June 19, 2010, teenage program participants from Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre gathered at the Theatre Communications Group national conference at the Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago.  In addition to these teens, the room was packed full of attendees: professional theatre artists eager to discuss the “next generation of theatre audiences.”

Education Directors from the three theatres introduced themselves, their Young Adult, Youth Arts, and Teen Councils, and explained why they had organized this session.  Then, they stepped aside and allowed the teenagers to speak.  The teens talked about their involvement with the organizations, their experiences as “theatre kids,” and their hopes for the future.  And remarkably, the adults listened.  Really listened.  Any prejudices they might have had against young people or their commitment to the arts were out the window as soon as these teens starting talking.  The attendees knew that not only were these kids smart – they were the future of theatre.

As the discussion continued, many pertinent issues began to surface.  Questions came up relating to artistic programming, pre-/post-show events, marketing & social media, financial accessibility, schools’ involvement, and teens’ leadership within an organization.  The attendees took notes furiously as the teenagers sounded off on what brought them to the theatre: Facebook marketing, plays that are about “real people,” opportunities for interaction and influence within the organization, cheap tickets and – most importantly – FREE FOOD.

The young panelists also mentioned some of things that discourage their peers from attending theatre. Many felt that professional theatres can give off an air of exclusivity – a sort of “no kids allowed” attitude.  Others worried about asking their friends to pay upwards of $20 for a ticket to a play when they could attend a movie for less than half the price.  Even though some teens were made aware of reduced-price tickets (the Goodman offers day-of student tickets for $10, for example), a lack of promotion surrounding such deals, or the productions for which these deals might be used, prevented most teens from actually taking advantage of the offers.

The solution?  Make teens a part of the organization itself! If the artists and educators present took anything away from the discussion it was – well, that teens love free food – but also that  having teens directly involved in the process of planning and marketing events and performances is the most effective way to foster a young audience demographic.  After all, they know better than anyone what appeals to other teens.

As the session came to a close, the participants lingered to talk to these young panelists – the room alive with new ideas and possibilities for the future.  “I hope you remember this when you’re running the theatres,” said Willa J. Taylor, Director of Education & Community Engagement at the Goodman, “because we’re gonna need senior citizen discounts from you!”