Since When has Theatre Become Uncool for Generation-Y?

A very popular Broadway musical that seems to attract the young crowd.

A very popular Broadway musical that seems to attract the young crowd.

There was once a time when the only entertainment available for people was to attend the theatre. Live theatre, with all its singing, acting, and dancing, thrived in an environment without video cameras, high speed Internet, and state-of-the-art special effects.

Then, the radio came around. Live theatre and radio even became strange bedfellows, when radio shows like “The Shadow” and “Detective Story Hour” becoming popular in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I’m sure there were theatre artists who feared the radio would be the death of their business. Such anxieties are understandable.

At around this time movies roared into the scene as a formidable form of mass entertainment. Why bother going all the way to New York to see your favorite Broadway actors and actresses when you can see your favorite stars at your local cinemaplex? Well, movie theatres as we know it today didn’t quite exist in those days, but you get the idea.

Film allowed theatre to go to new heights. Instead of pretending to act on a boat, you can actually act on a boat! You can create new and exciting characters like King Kong or see amazing special effects in “Frankenstein” because in film, you only have to do those things once instead of night after night. Live theatre makes it so that you have to recreate spectacle over and over again, which can get costly after a while.

After the end of World War II, a unique and groundbreaking invention called “television” entered into the mainstream of American culture. Now we can both watch and hear our performers, all from the comfort of our living rooms. No need to leave your house to go to the cinema or playhouse. Everything you could possibly hope for in home entertainment was available, conveniently, at home.

Today all those things are available online. Internet television, YouTube, Hulu, and everything else has made it that you don’t even have to retreat into the living room to get your entertainment. Depending on where you have Internet access, you can watch everything from the comfort of your bedroom; even in bed if you want. Imagine that.

All this background information is to say that to many people of my generation, going to the theatre to watch plays is something that seems so outdated. Live entertainment is so untrendy because we have to pay admission and see a particular show at a certain time. And that means no shoot outs, car chases, “Star Trek”-style CGI, or big menacing robots like you can see in “Transformers.” You actually have to sit around and watch people talk to each other. That is so 20th century!

Come to think of it, that is so 19th century. Boy, have the times changed.

When I was going to school, I was highly active in my university’s theatre program. When I asked dorm mates or casual friends what they thought of the shows I were in, they would always tell me it was “good for a play.” It may not be as entertaining as an episode of “House” or “The Office,” but it passed the time well regardless. I even talked to someone just a month ago who commented that a show I was in was “pretty good,” and that was saying something because he usually hates theatre. He needs to get out more.

But that seems to be the problem. People my age, as in folks ages 18-30, don’t go to the theatre. With the exception of “High School Musical” or any of those big Broadway musicals that travel from city to city, the theatre isn’t as “hip” or “cool” as other mediums of entertainment. This is probably due to the physical limitations of a stage. As mentioned before, there are effects you can achieve on the screen in post-production that you cannot achieve on a simple proscenium stage.

Musicals like “Wicked” and “The Phantom of the Opera” are popular because they’re big, epic on scope, and sure-fire crowd pleasers. “Spamalot” and “The Producers” have the luxury of being based on iconic cult films with a previously established following. And of course, all the musicals based on Disney films like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” They’re aimed at the whole family and boast characters and songs known to most of the world.

Whenever I go see plays in Tacoma, Seattle, or elsewhere, the audience is almost always dominated by people older than 60. Folks in my demographic are almost never present, except to cheer on a friend of theirs who is in the cast.

My generation was raised watching Michael Bay style movies with heavy loads of CGI, hot young women in scantily clad clothing, and liberal doses of action violence. There is a reason why movies like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Terminator Salvation” made a ton of money at the box office even though both films lacked much of a plot or deep characters. The only reason why “Star Trek” has been so successful is because J.J. Abrams toned down the geekiness and revved up the hot young actors/eye popping special effects/mind-blowing action factor. You basically need to do that in order to make the nerdy world of Star Trek mainstream.

Another factor that might explain why young people don’t attend the theatre is because of the price of admission. In Seattle, a single ticket to go see a show can go upwards of $40. Younger folks can get in for $10 to $15 only because theatres lower the prices to attract younger audiences. But in this economy, who has $40 to spend on a night of entertainment when you can rent a movie at your local movie rental store for $3.50?

When I visited New York City this past January, tickets to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows cost as low as $50 per ticket all the way to $80 for big time musicals. That is a very significant chunk of change. That explains why many New Yorkers don’t bother to go see the theatre there. A lot of the audience members were people like me: tourists.

The future of live theatre: To be, or not to be?

The future of live theatre: To be, or not to be?

But there is good news. I’ve heard through the grapevine that in cities like Chicago, there is an emerging young and hip theatre scene. I’m glad to hear that. But in most parts of the country, there isn’t a theatre scene that appeals to younger crowds. Young kids my age and younger don’t want to see Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Those are people you read at school, not spend your Friday nights with. Let’s face it, kids who text message and surf Facebook in their free time most likely have never heard of playwrights like Eugene O’Neill or Anton Chekhov, let alone seen their work.

For hardcore theatre folk, this is heartbreaking news. As generations pass, who will attend the theatre? The generation of people who remember when live theatre was trendy are passing along as we speak. When folks my age eventually become working adults, will they hop to their local playhouse and be willing to spend an evening with Shakespeare or Neil Simon, or Noel Coward? It is doubtful, but it is possible.

There will never be a shortage of actors. Actors are a dime a dozen. The desire to sing, dance, and act and be seen in the spotlight will never fade away. I’m more concerned about the audience. There can be no theatre without an audience. Theatre for theatre’s sake makes no sense. If the theatre loses its audience, what will it do next?

This is why I believe more theatres need to address these concerns and consider the future. That doesn’t mean they should disregard the classics and perform only cutting edge stuff, but experimenting at attracting younger patrons can never hurt. What needs to happen is for young people in my generation to realize that the stage can be just as powerful a medium as a movie screen, television screen, or computer screen. Even a large IMAX screen. They need to be exposed to the beauties of live art instead of being dragged kicking and screaming because their girlfriend plays the third chorus girl from the left.

This can be done by putting on new, edgy material that challenges and speaks to our generation. If Barack Obama can get my generation to get excited about politics (at least during the months leading up the election), then they can also get pumped up for the performing arts. Another remedy is for theatres to advertise in places other than newspapers. Facebook, YouTube, to a lesser degree MySpace, and Twitter are great ways for theatres to get the word out to people my age. Many theatres are already doing this. Good for them.

It also wouldn’t hurt to feature younger playwrights who write and feature characters in my age range. A play about characters living the American Gen-Y experience is much more topical than exploring the theological/political arguments between King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More. If you need to know what I’m talking about, Google it.

Young playwrights about characters they can relate to are great ways to attract folks my age to the theatre. I don’t look at this as selling out, I look at it as preserving a potentially dying art form. There will always be room for the classics. But if we want to make sure people will care about the classics 20 or 30 years from now, these are measures we need to implement without hesitation.

Who will take the charge and do this? I might play a role in this. So can my theatre friends who recently graduated from college. It should be our duty to help out the business of theatre (remember boys and girls, it is a business after all) in addition to using it to hone our craft. This is why I love teaching little kids about drama. If anything else, even if they have no desire to be an actor later in life, at least I can leave them with the impression that going to the theatre can be fun. Playing pretend and watching that magic unfold before your very eyes is something that you can experience if you take the time to look for it.

So I suppose this is also a rallying cry for actors and performing artists my age: seize the day and don’t let our beloved craft die. Encourage your friends to see shows, not just the ones you’re in. Support cutting edge theatre groups that are trying to get a foothold. Join one or even start one, if necessary. The future is in your hands.

In the words of the late great Augusto Boal, “Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”

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One Comment on “Since When has Theatre Become Uncool for Generation-Y?”

  1. you'll never guess Says:

    here here, comrade in arms! though most fear the experimental aspect of theatre-worrying that it will scare off an audience-I agree that something needs to ve done. the biggest problem it what Peter Brook calls ‘deadly theatre’ which is basically defined as ‘bad thatre’ and is the tretmenr most of these classic authors receive because artists donalt know how to perform them. I guarantee one can make The Bard relevant,entertaining, and meaningful to anyone!


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