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The Young and the Ticketless

October 18, 2010

This week, I had an absolute pleasure attending the Ringling International Arts Festival. How often does an amazing group of world-class artists assemble right in your own backyard, and then let you in for free? I can now count the times it has happened to me on one finger. (Seriously, we finished class one day and walked down two flights of stairs and snuck into a theatre for a Mikhail freakin’ Baryshnikov solo performance. It was pretty awesome).

Speaking of Baryshnikov, he’s the director of the festival. Or organizer. Or…main artistic leading force. Or something. So the artists selected from around the world are usually pretty damn good, and they perform right in three theaters at the Asolo. I saw Rubberbandance, a relentless, blistering, hyperkinetic, hip-hop inspired dance crew from Montreal. Then there was the creative menagerie of the John Jasperse Company, dancing with more than a hint of both irony and legitimate talent and technique (and one piece where four dancers stood impeccably still, faced upstage, and flexed their butt muscles to the tune of “Kiss” by Prince. Oh yes), and of course, my personal festival-favorite, Les SlovaKs dance company made up of five dancers from Slovakia now residing in Brussels, who all mish mash a Herculean feat of improvisational folk-inspired, but very contemporary-viewpointsish-contact improv type of dance into about 60 minutes of pure joy. Here’s a clip of the show, which was like, but entirely unlike the performance I saw. By the way, their musician is a virtuoso, looping, recording/live playing violining genius.

Oh, and theatre? How about a one-man, visually stunning minimalist mimed journey of the Apollo 11 trip to the moon? I laughed, I dropped my jaw. I felt like a child when it was over, and actually said something, probably a little too loudly, like “I WANNA DO THAT RIDE AGAIN!!” Nilo Cruz’s new drama Hurricane played, with some stingingly poetic dialogue and a gorgeous set looking like a freeze frame of a house blown apart in a hurricane. And lastly, we saw Moscow’s Theatre Art Studio (not a typo) perform their Crystal Turandot award-winning production of The Boys, a rendition of a section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was in Russian (with subtitles) and lasted two hours and ten minutes with no intermission. The acting was so good (the ensemble theater LIVES, my friends) that I was never bored. Period. It sung.

And yet. I have one, big, fat bone to pick with the festival that has absolutely nothing to do with the performers, organizers, venues, or festivities (at which we were whole-heartedly embraced to join in).

Outside of my classmates and the 2nd and 3rd year students from Asolo, nary a young soul could have been found at the festival. Maybe a performer from one show would see another, or a local dancer from the Sarasota Ballet (which also performs at the Asolo) would wander in, but I’ll take an uber-conservative estimation, and say that 95% of the attendees were 55 or older.

First off, I am absolutely not saying that people in this age range should stop watching amazing art. Thank god they do, it’s the only reason any of us have jobs in the performing arts these days. I want each and every one of them to continue passionately loving the arts as much as they do, and never stop. I just wonder why more of my 20-something comrades aren’t joining in. The shows sold very well. Most were in the 90-100% full range. If just a small handful of young folk showed up, there’d be lines around the building to get in like it was Lambeau field.

Seriously, read what I wrote about the shows I saw this week again. I had an awesome time. My mind was blown by so much talent that I had to wobble through the parking lot like a drunken hillbilly, looking for scattered pieces of my psyche to piece back together. Any old non-arts lover would have been stunned.

Where the heck were you, dudes?

Here’s a sick question for ya, though. What happens in 30-40 years and all of the current theater-goers have passed on? Are theaters even still open anymore?

Here’s another. What is it about the 50-80 age range that makes them want to see theater in the first place? Is it because they grew up with it and have loved it for a lifetime? (Dear Jehosefat I hope not, because my generation aint buyin’ tickets today, and won’t tomorrow). Or is it that something matures in you as a person, and that at age 5 you watch cartoons, age 15 you watch MTV, age 25 you watch Jersey Shore, and somewhere around age 55 you turn the TV off and flock to the theater like moths to flame?

I have a great time at dance and theater shows. They make great dates. They inspire me and change the way I look at love, life and the world. Of course, I grew up watching live theater because my mom has been a volunteer usher at Colorado’s crown jewel of a theater, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, for almost 20 years. I had tickets coming out of my ears.

So back to the issue at hand. There aint no twenty-, and hardly any thirty-somethings seeing theater in some places. My old company, Single Carrot Theatre, had a pretty phenomenal ‘young person’ draw – but we were all in our twenties, and our friends liked the work we do. They told their friends, and we suddenly had a subscription list that even the biggest theater’s coveted. They, as we learned at the Theater Communications Group national conference, are obsessed with ‘chasing the young people around.’

Here’s the ultimate question: What can we do to change it in the big picture? I’m not talking gimmicks. I’m not talking off-shoots. How can we get the young butts to plant themselves next to the older butts?

1- Ticket prices. Why pay $25-75 for two hours of entertainment when I can get that for free on YouTube and facebook? Let’s be totally honest. I talk a pretty high game and I have no problem throwing my generation under the bus, but here’s a big old fat secret: I wouldn’t have gone to the festival AT ALL if I hadn’t gotten all the free passes (or known how to sneak into the shows for free). I’m broke and I ain’t got the $200-300 it would have cost me to see all the shows I saw. So, there’s that.

2- Content. If I see that a theater is doing Oklahoma, I will not only skip that show, but every other show they ever do. Ever. My generation doesn’t want re-hashes, revivals or re-treads. We want exciting, thought-provoking work. We want to be scared, shocked, seduced, and challenged. I’ll take it a step further: my generation doesn’t even want to watch Shakespeare. We don’t care if you set Hamlet in a futurist landscape of technology and computers. Sorry. I love acting the classics. I don’t love watching them.

3- The social setting. When “hey guys, what do you want to do tonight?!” gets asked, how often is the reply “Go sit quietly in the dark for two hours!”? Never. How can we make theater more social? Here’s a hint: TALKBACKS DO NOT COUNT. Retire the talkback. They are awkward for performer and patron. Let’s do ‘no-structure, everyone meet at the bar and if you wanna ask the artist something (and not in the “I want to ask something smart so everyone in the room knows I’m smart” type of way), then go buy him a drink and have a real conversation’ hang outs. Let’s do something at intermission that’s fun. Like a Jello shot and a drinking song.

4- Speaking of booze: the booze. Yes, theaters usually sell booze, but the last thing I want to do is fork over another $7 for a drink after I paid $60 for two tickets, and $5 to park. Single Carrot, if I don’t mind saying so myself, had a pretty freaking great idea. We gave out free beer and wine to all the patrons at a sketch comedy show because we wanted to make sure they laughed hard and loud. We also thought it would draw out the college crowd, which would have liked our low-brow humor much better. Hey, you know what? Old people like free booze too. And they like incest jokes just as much as young people do. Work a free drink into your ticket price, very few people will mind. Most will adore you. It worked so well for our sketch comedy show that we kept it for every show. It’s a major sell.

5- The art form is tired. People think theater is stuffy and boring because, well, it can be, sometimes. But I dare anyone who saw Fuerza Bruta in New York City to tell me that. I dare someone to watch Dmitry Krymov’s freaky talented group of students put on a show and not be knees-a-quivering astounded. I don’t know anyone, ANYONE, who wouldn’t have thought that Andrew Dawson’s Space Panorama (the hand-mimed moon-landing show) was anything less than brilliant and hilarious. There are damn good performers and performances out there, and if we held our artists to this kind of “I’m still talking about it the next day” standard, then we wouldn’t want to smash our faces into the wall when theaters still insist on doing Hello $%^*#! Dolly.

There is much more rant in me, but I want to hear what you have to say. Are we doomed? Or is there hope?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 11:33 pm

    I think there’s hope. I went to theatre like mad when I was working in theatre. Never missed anything my friends and relatives were doing (unless I was doing a show as well), and was comped probably 95% of the time.

    Now, in my mid-thirties, with a kid, and living in a town where I know one (as in a single) person doing theatre, I honestly don’t have the money or time. I would not only have to buy tickets, but pay a babysitter, and then have the energy after a full day of chasing my kid to want to drive across town and pay to park.

    It just isn’t happening right now. However, in a few years, when the kiddo is older, and we have more disposable income, I can see it creeping back in. I think that’s why the numbers are skewed to the older generation. They can not only afford the tickets and the dinner and the parking, but they no longer have to juggle soccer practice and babysitters.

    As for the retreads, well, the blue hairs – they pay the bills. If your core audience is over 60, you do your season to please them and keep them buying season tickets. Hopefully, you can throw in a few shows that are new, and not alienate them. It is a balancing act for sure. The summer stock company I worked for in NY switched artistic directors while I was working for them, and the new AD has a fine line to walk every season.

    I’m with you on the talkbacks (hate them with a fiery passion) and the free booze.

    I differ on the Shakespeare though. I love watching it as much as I love working it. Only shows I have ever been hearing new things all the way until closing.

  2. October 19, 2010 9:25 am

    There is hope. Creatively, energetically and demographically. Just wait ’til the grid goes down, and local live theater performances with free booze will be the talk of the / every town. Seriously, though, there is hope. You are right about the content being the compelling force that makes the word of mouth that breaks the demographic logjam. Great to read about your latest shows seen – and it’s only October !!!

  3. Lindsey permalink
    October 19, 2010 10:05 am

    Brendan, I share your awkward pain. At every show I review, I am–at nearly 30–usually the youngest person in the audience. Now while I like revisting old shows and seeing them in a new light, there’s nothing better than discovering something so new and provocative and scary and wonderful that you want to go out into the world and start dragging people back to that theater to experience it for themselves. Sometimes it’s not the show, but an actor or an ensemble that garners that reaction. But since I do get to see everything for free, my main barometer is “would I pay for this? Would I pay to see it a second time? Would I send my broke friends, who could just as easily Netflix something, to this and ask them to sit in hard seats for a few hours?” Sadly, the answer is usually no. But every now and then it’s a resounding yes, and that’s what keeps my theater curiosity spark alive.

    And Baryshnokov. Hot.

  4. Mark Krawczyk permalink
    October 20, 2010 12:12 pm

    “Here’s a sick question for ya, though. What happens in 30-40 years and all of the current theater-goers have passed on? Are theaters even still open anymore?”

    In TOWARD A POOR THEATRE, there’s an interview in which Jerzy Grotowski is asked (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Do you think the live theatre is dying?”

    His response was, “I don’t like being asked rhetorical questions, and I don’t like answering them.” Again…paraphrase…

    However, the sentiment was that live theatre has always been around as long as humanity, and will continue to be around…but it will be surviving in varying states of “health.” Some of it will be commercial crap. Some of it will be good. Some of it bad.

    Is it dying? Depends…what is dying? What is staying alive?

    Is it natural evolution, or an unnatural culling of work because of the economic situations all around us?

    I don’t know.

    One thing is certain: Theatre will never die. It just might be difficult to find decent, accessible theatre.

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