Happy New Year to you all!Hello everybody.
"And the beat goes on..................."
This year I intend to do a lot more in-depth, one-on-one interviews with leaders both in and out of the arts & culture sector on issues I hope will be of wide interest to the people in our field. I welcome suggestions for both topics and inteview candidates. I hope to convene the HESSENIUS Group once or twice on major topics that resonate with arts administrators and I have a couple of surprises in store. I very much appreciate your feedback and emails, as I endeavor to make this blog relevant, useful and interesting to you.
ISSUE ONE: YOUTH INVOLVEMENT IN THE ARTS FROM THE OTHER SIDE
As most of you know, I have spent considerable time trying to understand and address the generational succession issue as it relates to the nonprofit arts spectrum - from how we will succeed at recruiting, training and keeping new leadership for our organizations, to how we can build younger audiences and cultivate new donors and supporters.
At one of the meetings that was an outgrowth last year of the Youth Involvement in the Arts Report done for the Hewlett Foundation, a young arts supporter - Ben Fisher - spoke knowledgably and eloquently about the issues of involving younger people. I asked him if he would let me interview him and he agreed.
Here is his bio, and that interview:
BEN FISHER BIO: Ben Fisher will graduate from Connecticut College in 2008 with a BA in theater and English, where he has actively pursued acting, directing, and playwriting. He has worked as an intern at Intersection for the Arts, the Magic Theater, TheatreWorks and the UCSB Summer Theater Lab, and has studied at the National Theater Institute of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. This year he received a student research grant to attend the Forum 2000 conference in Prague, and will direct Václav Havel’s The Increased Difficulty of Concentration for the college’s spring main stage production. Ben’s poetry has won the college’s Benjamin T. Marshall Prize and Charles B. Palmer Prize. His first play, Leviathan, was broadcast on WCNI Radio in New London, CT in 2007
BARRY: You’ve observed that every arts organization pays “lip service” to engaging young people in the arts. Do you think that’s all most organizations do in this area – engage in lip service? Can you give me examples of what would be “lip service” vs. substantial and meaningful efforts to engage young people? Why do you think the response on the part of the arts to engaging young people has been so superficial?
BEN: Every arts organization in this area wants to attract a larger youth audience and increase youth involvement, but few organizations are realizing that they will need to substantively change the way they operate in order do to so. I feel that most arts organizations in this area are very set in their ways, and when confronted with the dilemma of how to engage young people in the arts, they try to find solutions that do not require deviation from the standard way of doing things. These sorts of solutions involve reducing ticket prices for young people, or creating peripheral, youth-oriented performances or workshops (I’m thinking here of the sort of half hour, semi-educational, variety performances that theaters will sometimes take on the road to local schools). This is what I mean by lip service. I do not think arts organizations intend for it to be superficial, but it is superficial in that it requires the smallest amount of change possible. Reduced ticket prices and youth oriented workshops are only the first steps in what needs to be a more comprehensive restructuring of how arts organizations interact with youth.
Arts organizations in this area are willing to take these first steps, but I worry that, when these first steps fail to completely solve the problem, arts organizations respond by resenting youth rather than going further. They ask “we’ve done art part by making this art available to you, why aren’t you interested?” Whether this resentment is conscious or unconscious, it is unhealthy. It excuses them from trying harder, from getting to the root of the problem, which is more a problem of perception.
I hear theaters talk a lot about how they want to increase youth involvement, but when you look at their strategic plans, there is very little infrastructure in place to see that it happens. Instead, the emphasis is on increasing the involvement and patronage of their core audience, making ticket holders into subscribers and subscribers into donors. Development directors devote an inordinate amount of time pleasing major donors that could be spent elsewhere. Terrified by shrinking budgets, I feel that arts organizations have taken on a survival mentality, operating hand to mouth rather than stepping back and looking at how they need to adapt. The hand to mouth work is necessary to sustain an organization, but it only works for the short term. The emphasis needs to be on expansion, on targeting the younger demographic and involving them, whether as artists, administrators, donors, or audience members, in a meaningful way.
Things like reducing ticket prices or designing performance programs for school assemblies, while positive, do very little to expand an audience. Substantive change constitutes the sort of adaptations that will make a young audience – an audience that represents a very small minority in most organizations – into their new core. To achieve this, art organizations need to identify why youth are uninterested in their organizations, whether it is a problem of perception, content, or how the content is presented. For many organizations, more than one of these three problem areas may be applicable.
A problem of perception means that the arts organization is already creating work that would appeal to a youth audience, but the work is going unnoticed. This problem can be mitigated by more intelligent, comprehensive marketing. A problem of content means that the work being created is simply not engaging for a youth audience, and the solution lies in artistic change. A problem of presentation means that, while the content is good and has the potential to be engaging, the way in which it is shown is unappealing. The solution to this problem lies in restructuring the relationship between the audience and the art, making the environment more engaging for a younger audience. I think this problem is the one that provides the largest challenge for arts organizations, and is subsequently the most pressing to address. With all three, however, the solutions lie in revisiting the old method of doing things – administratively and artistically. They are much more fundamental changes.
BARRY: You suggest organizations need to go beyond just offering discounts to performances – that they need to look more closely at their marketing and content. Explain what you mean.
BEN: If I do not want to go and see a play, concert, or exhibit to begin with, I am probably still not likely to go even if I learn that the ticket is less expensive. Discounted ticket prices allow the organizations to tell youth “we want you to come,” but what isn’t stressed is why coming is important.
If arts organizations want youth to protect the future of the arts in this country, they need to demonstrate that their work is worth saving. This gets back to the three problem areas I mentioned in the previous question. It constitutes finding work resonates with a young audience, setting a much higher standard for performances, creating an engaging performance environment, and supporting it with informed, effective marketing.
I think that the reason my generation seems uninvolved or indifferent with regards to the arts is because we are skeptical that the work will be meaningful to us. We think, with the theater especially, that what is being performed is meant for someone older, for people who have the means and the social position to be “patrons of the arts.” This is negative predisposition that cannot be fixed simply by reducing the cost of tickets. The solution lies in restructuring youth’s attitude towards the arts, demonstrating for them its full expressive potential, that it is created for them as much as anyone else. When this happens, their involvement and support will increase.
I think most arts organizations recognize the predisposition youth have against many areas of the arts. I also think that most organizations are trying to find solutions. The problem is that these solutions are not as comprehensive as they need to be. Youth indifference has reached a crisis level. It requires a revolution in the way we think about arts to address. In every era, the arts stay relevant by adapting and responding to social and cultural changes. That does not mean we throw out the old work, but it means that we change the way it is presented. Shakespeare’s plays have remained popular for hundreds of years, but because, in each decade, something about the approach to his work changes.
Breakthrough performances like Peter Brook’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream or Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth respect the dramatic tradition associated with Shakespeare’s plays but don’t try to “preserve” something about his work. Museums are for preservation. Arts are for exploration. I think the reason youth involvement is such a problem is because we have been sluggish to adapt, because (whether we admit it or not) we are replicating, not experimenting. Can you imagine how tedious it would be if every production of Shakespeare had to be done in Elizabethan costume with an all male cast?
Replication is easy, since the model is already there. It is also tested – if it worked before, it’s probably going to work again to some degree. What it does not do is renew interest or engage people who are disinterested. Ultimately, it feeds the sort of “survivor mentality” I mentioned earlier – a way of reasoning that is inherently cautious and unadventurous whose goal is minimizing risk. When arts organizations hedge their bets like this, nobody wins. By relying on what they know, what they do well, and what pleases their core audience, these organizations are in danger of becoming out of touch. When their core audience disappears in ten years, they are screwed.
BARRY: You’ve noted that the mistakes that the theater community makes in trying to involve more young people include an over-reliance on an aging, shrinking demographic, and that some of the techniques employed are too "pushy". You observe that solicitation of donors by the arts among young people seems to be less about entertainment and more about hustling money, and that using guilt with younger people is the wrong impulse. What do you mean? Can you elaborate? How can the arts expand their demographic to include more young people?
BEN: This problem relates to the problem of perception and the problem of how content is presented. When I walk into a theater looking like I do, with shaggy hair and dingy clothing because I am a student, I do not want to be made to feel like I do not belong. Everyone my age I know enjoys going to see plays, even people who do not consider themselves ‘theater people.’ We also don’t mind, generally, paying a little more than we would if we went to see a movie. However, when I see plays with my friends who do not go to the theater, they rarely comment afterwards whether they liked or didn’t like what they saw. They obviously have an opinion, but they have convinced themselves that they are unqualified to judge. They defer to my opinion because I’m the one studying theater, because I am supposed to know what makes it good or bad. This is ridiculous. When we go to the movies, everyone has an opinion. We do not defer to the judgment of film students. Why is there a difference?
What makes the experience unappealing or uncomfortable is not the performance, but the atmosphere that is sometimes created. In a movie theater, everyone feels equally welcome. It is a classless environment. In the theater, the seriousness, the formality, the constant rhetoric about how vulnerable the arts are and how they must be preserved for the betterment of all mankind, creates a sort of bizarre caste system. Those who attend regularly, who can afford to donate, who have excellent seats, are entitled to have opinions. When I see the donation card in my program and know the most I can give is twenty dollars, I feel insecure. When an usher glares at me for talking loudly with my friends in the lobby, I feel embarrassed. This sort of atmosphere oozes condescension. It says “you should be grateful that we are giving you this opportunity and must cherish it.” Most of all, distracts needlessly from the performance, which is what’s really important.
If arts organizations want youth to be meaningfully involved, they have to joyfully take us for who we are – poor, petulant, and disheveled. I believe if the atmosphere at the theater was a little more informal, it would greatly increase the appeal for young people. It would remove the negative, snobbish elements young people often associate with the arts. My fellow students enjoy seeing student productions or plays that visit the college because there is that informality there, because it is our territory. Outside at other theaters, however, we become self-conscious. We convince ourselves, however irrationally, that we are imposters, that we are being judged by everyone around us. When arts organizations work to mitigate the separation between young audiences and the older, richer, more refined donor crowd, young people will feel that they are sharing in the experience equally. They will be more open about their impressions of what they see and more willing to return.
There has been an interesting trend with some productions of creating a sort of gala event or party within a play. Intersection for the Arts production of Des Moines is a good example. I think there is something to be learned from these types of performances. It creates a atmosphere that young people can enjoy, an atmosphere where the arts become a classless social occasion where, even if the play is bad, going out to see it is still fun. Going to the theater, in my opinion, should not be something you need to plan weeks in advance and get dressed up for. It should be like going to a movie. It is simply something that comes to mind on the spur of the moment. I have a free afternoon, why not go see a play? If theaters can find a way to integrate themselves with youth night life, to find a place between dinner and bar hopping, to cultivate those associations, the work of involving youth will become a lot easier. It is not an easy task by any means, but it is a worthwhile one to pursue.
BARRY: Talk about risk. Theater doesn’t seem willing, you say, to risk being unpopular with their base audience, and thus there is a disconnect with the younger audience. You argue that their seeming mistrust of the younger audience (“young people won’t get this play”; young people don’t yet have an eye for theater”; “young people will never be subscribers”) is at the heart of unsuccessful attempts to involve more young people. Some arts organizations would argue that it isn’t about trust, and that to abandon their core supporters and client base by marketing, programming and driving content that specifically addresses the tastes, needs and desires of the younger cohort would be suicidal for them. Is there a middle ground? Or is the solution really a whole new arts matrix wherein we develop niche arts -- one sector appeals to young people, another to middle age, another to older people etc?
BEN: I think this question touches on the idea of adaptation versus replication, about choosing what is easy versus what is necessary. Frankly, no arts organization is going to succeed in making youth interested if the performances are irrelevant to a younger generation. I have ideas about what changes can be made to engage youth, but I cannot put them into practice without risking something. There is a certain amount of trial and error involved, but if the risk taking is informed, guided, and intelligent, I think it is unlikely that it will end in total failure.
By and large, I believe the fear that some arts organizations have of losing their base is largely irrational. The older, artistic base of these theaters is not going to evaporate overnight if they do not like some of the material. If you see a bad Shakespeare play, you do not suddenly hate Shakespeare and disavow all future productions. It is conceivable that some patrons may feel slightly alienated, some subscribers will become disinterested, and some donors may give less, but it seems shortsighted to live in fear of this demographic, to pander to them exclusively for support and approval. I believe if theaters take their responsibility to engage young audiences seriously, if they work to create sophisticated, evocative art, if they invest in capable, emerging artists and support productions, these “riskier” productions will be among the most universally popular – not just with the younger generation, but with all theater goers. Even if alienating this demographic is unavoidable, it is necessary if the riskier material is brining in a new, younger audience. The base audience for every theater is shrinking with or without risk taking. A new audience needs to become a base audience.
I think it is a mistake to work to create niche arts for each age group since it may lead to the sort exclusiveness that makes young people feel like they do not belong in the theater. It’s not wrong for a theater to specialize in a type of performance, in some respects, that is helpful in developing a reputation and finding a place in the community. There’s a very fine line, however, between specializing and imposing limitations, resorting to the same bag of tricks for every performance. The theaters I enjoy going to the most have developed a reputation and following for a certain type of performances because I like that style or genre; I go to them because the work is varied, well-produced, and consistently interesting. The niche that theaters should focus on is the one that separates them from other art mediums, film especially.
There certainly is a middle ground. Theaters can balance their season with plays that take risks, which are more likely to appeal to a younger generation, with plays that are more likely to appeal to their base. In striking these balances, however, theaters need to be honest with themselves to ensure that the “riskier” work is actually taking risks. I see a lot of plays that try to pass themselves off as riskier or experimental, but it’s just changing the icing on the cake. With the shows that are designed to appeal to the younger generation, I would also advocate that theaters make an effort to solicit younger writers and younger directors when possible. This probably sounds shamelessly self serving, but young artists possess the ability to speak to members of their generation in a way that older artists cannot. Even if younger artists are not “in the driver’s seat”, so to speak, including them meaningfully in the creative process benefits everyone. It hones their ability as artists and gives theaters access to another perspective.
BARRY: What are the basic mistakes the arts make in terms of marketing to younger people? Where is the current emphasis right, where is it wrong? Specifically, are the arts failing to appreciate what graphics appeal to young people? Are they failing to use the right approaches and venues in which to place their messages? Is their language dated? Are they not somehow “hip” enough? You’ve noted that the primary function of marketing to young people must be to capture their interest, not necessarily to transmit information – do you see the arts failing to do that? How could they succeed?
BEN: I think the problem with marketing gets back to the problem with the perception of the arts among my generation. Good marketing demonstrates why a performance is important, relevant, and engaging for young people. Young audiences will want to see live art because it is good, not because it is live. Marketing for the arts is falling short because it is not overcoming this barrier, not adapting. Think about how much the emphasis, language, and tone of movie advertising has changed in the last few decades. Film is not an inherently modern medium, but the advertising is modern, sophisticated, an attuned to the tastes of the potential audience.
Language and emphasis does need to change for arts advertising to reach the effectiveness of film advertising. As a whole, I feel my generation is more visual than previous generations, which is why good graphics are so important, perhaps more so that words. I see a lot of theater posters with detailed information about the entire season. This can be overwhelming. It is unlikely that I will stop to read all of this information as I am walking by, even if I notice it. If I see a poster with an arresting image and the basics – address, dates, website, play, etc. – my response is to get the information on the internet the second I get home. The poster should tantalize and intrigue, not inform. The theater’s website can help with that (and, by the way, there is no excuse for not having an excellent website in this day and age). A lot of movie posters work in this way. Just look at movie posters from the 50s and movie posters from this decade. The emphasis on graphics over language is clear.
More significantly, however, my generation is desensitized to the barrage of advertisements and media in a way that other generations are not. Perhaps these qualities give the impression that we are unfocused, inpatient, or apathetic. I would argue that instead, it is a defense tactic. To overcome it, arts organizations need to be aggressive and they need to be persistent. Posters are all well and good, but theaters can also make more use of internet social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to start to develop a core of interested young people. This means utilizing event information sites like going.com or upcoming.yahoo.com. This means going to campuses and saturating the area with posters, getting in touch with students arts organizations, clubs, professors, and establishing a relationship. In the theaters I have worked with, people in marketing and development know the names and tastes of all major donors and regular subscribers. Getting youth involved means showing them the same level of respect and interest, even if we cannot back up our patronage with huge donations. Take the time to learn the names of students who are involved in running arts clubs, students who write for the campus newspaper, or really any young person that can help act as an ambassador to other young people. The president of the college Shakespeare society may not one day be a valuable patron or a committed theater maker, he or she has the power to influence other students, to help build lasting connections and a lasting interest among his or her peers. If the organization is understaffed, sick an intern on it, make databases, and keep following up. Given our resistance to advertising, taking the relationship approach might yield better results. Word of mouth is still the best way to advertise.
BARRY: Is there not enough emphasis on quality? On artistic merit? How relevant is that to young audiences?
BEN: I think there can never be enough emphasis on quality. Artistic merit is as valuable to young audience as it is to any audience. You might even that it is more important since my generation, the younger generation, can be more inspired by what we see onstage because we have had less exposure, because we are still forming our opinions of the world.
It is dangerous when theaters try to mask artistic shortcomings with more superficial elements. Things like elaborate sets and special effects can sometimes make productions engaging, but nobody will care if the writing, acting, or directing is bad. I see this a lot, and I think it is a misguided attempt to connect with a younger audience, to make the theater “exciting” and “modern”. My generation is so used to stunning visual effects in the films, we’re going to be very difficult to impress in the theater. The money can be spent elsewhere. Theater should not compete with film, it should seek to find areas where it is distinct. Theater (indeed, all live art) has the ability to speak to a local audience, to touch local issues through art with a specificity and intimacy that film cannot.
This is why choice is so important. There are hundreds of excellent plays; what is difficult is choosing which plays need to be produced, which plays are going to resonate strongly with the community. Most bad productions I see are the result of poor choices. Poor choices happen when theaters are disconnected, when they mistakenly link quality with elitism. They happen when theaters have a sort of secret self-loathing because they are in the Bay Area and not on Broadway. They happen because of an eagerness on the part of writers and directors to please other artists above the rest of the community. It has very little to do with the talent or ability of the people involved in the creative process. It is a matter of focus and intention.
BARRY: Talk about content. How do you address the problem of presenting the creation of art being done by younger people vs. presentation of the “classics”? You argue that theater’s over-emphasis and reliance on outdated plays with plots, characters and situations that young people don’t / can’t relate to makes it difficult to recruit those young people as audiences. Is it just a problem of credibility and contemporary relevance? You say that modern dress doesn’t make a Shakespeare play relevant, but aren’t there universal themes in classic drama that are relevant to all age groups? Shouldn’t the classics be preserved and shouldn’t young people be exposed to them? Wouldn’t an over-emphasis on “relevance” be a form of pandering and thus not really ring true?
BEN: I think I may have been a little too harsh in my language here. You’re right that universal themes in classic dramas are relevant to all age groups. It would be idiotic to ignore the amazing legacy of drama by arguing that a new audience needs only new plays. I love the classics and I would never advocate doing away with them. They are worth preserving, but as living things, not as static artifacts. I love Shakespeare’s plays not because I have a particular affinity with the Renaissance, I love them because I believe that every era and every society can find something about his work that profoundly resonates. His plays are worlds, capable of countless, equally valid interpretations. We should be performing his plays, but we should not be performing his plays the same way over and over and over again. I believe that good productions of Shakespeare respect his dramatic legacy, respect his verse and how it should be delivered, but are not afraid to take risks. If we never took risks with Shakespeare, we would still be performing his plays with all male casts in Elizabethan costumes. Can Shakespeare productions with all male casts in Elizabethan costumes still matter today? Of course. I’ve seen Shakespeare produced in this way and it is equally moving. The gender of the actors and the costumes, however, are not the things that make these performances good.
When I talk about theaters producing outdated plays, I am really talking about theaters producing the same sort of productions year in and year out, looking at only a small slice of the incredible potential out there and relying on the same bag of tricks to make it happen. I’m talking about replication, about lack of creativity, about doing what is easy, about refusing to adapt and take risks. When I say that modern dress does not make Shakespeare modern, I mean that merely changing the costumes is not going to make his plays “hip” or “exciting” if they are performed badly. In many respects, looking at the classics helps us deconstruct what separates good art from mediocre art. I mentioned earlier that a lot of productions invest heavily in superficial elements and the expense of good writing, acting, and directing. This is, and will always be, the most important element in a production’s success.
I would say, however, that the plays for my generation have not been written. We have not found our Eugene O’Neill, our Tennessee Williams, our Arthur Miller, our Edward Albee. These three writers all still speak to us because they write about universal human truths, but there is still a sense of separation. Older generations have a sense of ownership for writers that we do not have yet, and it is important to understand how essential having that sort of ownership is. There are very few plays being produced that deal with the concept of choice in a pluralistic society, which I feel is the fundamental dilemma for people my age. These plays will undoubtedly be engaging for a youth audience, and if presented correctly will help renew youth involvement. These plays will also need to be written, acted and directed by young people, and not necessarily young people that graduate from places like Yale or Julliard. In some ways, I think these organizations discourage true exploration. My generation’s voice is just forming, but it is important that arts organizations recognize it, respect it, and help us to produce it.
BARRY: Given that the arts must compete in the modern era with movies, games, the internet, sports and other ways young people can, and do, spend their leisure time, is (or should it be) the primary purpose of the arts (say theater) first and foremost, to entertain, or is the purpose more complex than that? Should, as some critics have suggested, the marketplace determine what survives and what thrives? Should the arts “dumb” down their art to appeal to the broadest possible audience? Where is the middle ground?
BEN: I do think the primary purpose of art is to entertain, but it does not have to be the only purpose. The plays that we recognize as truly brilliant are very entertaining, but do more than just amuse us. They provoke us, they cause us to examine ourselves, and they illuminate some truth about the human condition. These plays are always more satisfying to see, so why limit oneself to just being entertaining?
I think dumbing things down is a mistake. We have to have some scruples, even if it is going to hurt financially. If everything is dumbed down to appeal to a larger audience, then the arts are simply not worth saving. I’m skeptical of letting the market place to all the determination, since I’m not sure if Shakespeare would survive as well against Phantom of the Opera. Non-profits arts organizations are non-profit for a reason, after all.
I do recognize, however, that not everyone is going to want to see a Brecht play every week, and that there is something to be said for leisure entertainment. I think there is a difference, however, between good leisure entertainment and bad leisure entertainment. I worked on a play by Jessica Hagedorn this summer called Fe in the Desert. The play deals with a lot of interesting issues involving race and identity, but first and foremost it was a fun play. It was funny, energetic, and very entertaining. When we had youth audiences especially, it was terrifically raucous. What made the play such a fun experience was the fact that, despite its ideological intelligence, it did not take itself too seriously. We wanted the audience to have a good time, and when they did, they understood all the other stuff that the play was about. If a play is not entertaining, after all, all the loftier philosophical and social aspects will be lost.
This gets back to the desire to incorporate theatergoing (or gallery going or concert going or whatever) into youth night life. There is room in the artistic world for good leisure entertainment, serious drama, and the avant garde. There is also a need for each element. If movie theaters only played summer blockbusters, it would be horrific.
The middle ground, again, comes with balance and intelligent choices, juxtaposing good, intelligent leisure entertainment with pieces that may not have such a universal appeal. It’s also necessary for arts organizations to realize that even less widely accessible pieces have the potential to be very engaging, and to recognize that the responsibility is always to entertain first. I’ve seen productions of Waiting for Godot that were mesmerizing because the creative team found the humor and slapstick as well as the existential debate. I’m in a production of Girish Kanard’s play Naga Mandala right now that is terrifically popular among the students. The play is very unusual, very experimental, and draws on Indian dramatic traditions that run in opposition to our Western understanding, but it is well acted, well directed, and the story is well told. If we set a higher standard for ourselves as creators and performers, we can make work that is “inaccessible” relevant. Shakespeare is arguably the most internationally renown playwright, but his work is still difficult to produce. Does anyone consider abandoning him because of this? Of course not, we rise to the occasion. We should have a similar attitude towards other challenging material.
BARRY: In talking about marketing to Google Youth, you’ve observed that they are children of the internet, and that they “travel in packs”. How do arts organizations take those variables into consideration when arriving at marketing strategies?
BEN: Google Youth is a term that I have coined for young people in the Bay Area working in the technology industry who have understimulating jobs and a lot of disposable income for people their age. This is the demographic arts organizations in our area should be going after, since it is the future of the Bay Area and will eventually be the future core audience. I think, with this contingent, many of the marketing strategies I outlined earlier will be effective in increasing their involvement, specifically online component (since they are so wired in) and visual component.
When I say that they travel in packs, I mean that once you get a few to start coming regularly, more will follow. Most young people that come to the Bay Area to work in the technology industry go straight from undergraduate work and are drawn from all over the country. As newcomers, they tend to gravitate towards a select (but growing) number of social functions, bars, restaurants, and hang outs that become regular meeting points. There are online forums within many companies like Google or Yahoo that give information on social outings, or that will set a date and time for employees to meet at a bar or restaurant and connect. I’ve seen it when it happens, the numbers are staggering. If arts organizations reach out to this group, they can get their name of the list of regular meeting points. They can become a social nexus where Google Youth can go not only to be entertained, but to socialize. Again, this relates back to integrating art with night life, creating positive associations between art and socializing.
The Google Youth are a difficult demographic to go after, however, since most probably do not consider themselves “art people” or “theater people” or whatever. In this sense, the marketing strategies need to be particularly aggressive. It might also be advisable for arts organizations to start partnerships with local restaurants, bars, etc. as a way of merging the social and art component.
Finally, attracting this audience will undoubtedly require some restructuring with content. I believe that the Google Youth will respond most favorably to new plays in our generational voice, plays about the concept of choice in a pluralistic society, about managing oneself in the flood of information. Whenever someone recognizes something of themselves on stage, or recognizes a social situation that they deal with, the work becomes suddenly much more vivid and appealing. In time, the Google Youth will be able to cultivate and appreciation for the broader spectrum of art, but this seems like a logical entry point.
BARRY: What are the three most important things arts organizations should do if they want to increase the involvement of young people in their organizations – first as audiences, second as supporters and volunteers, and third as defenders and patrons? And if you had a million dollars to spend to increase the involvement of young people in the arts, how would you spend it?
BEN: I think the three most important things fall into the three problem categories I mentioned in my answer to the first question – looking at perception, content, and the way content is being presented:
1. Revamp marketing strategies. Make posters more visually engaging. Start using online social networking sites and event forums to their full capacity. Increase presence on college campuses. Reach out to local businesses, bars, and restaurants for support. Invest in getting to know specific youth that have the potential to be advocates for your organizations (and maybe give them benefits, like free tickets).
2. Reexamine content. Ask why a specific piece needs to be performed now, what about it is specifically relevant. Seek out young artists, not from prestigious arts programs, but young artists who seem connected to their generational voice, and involve them as meaningful participants in the creative process. Set a higher standard for production, focusing on the fundamentals of artistic merit rather than window dressing like special effects. Identify what niche your particular art form provides, and focus on creating work that will be first and foremost entertaining while also having a socially relevant component.
3. Reexamine the relationship between art and audience. Search for ways to create a performance environment that will appeal to a younger audience. Explore the potential for gala, party, social events intertwined with performance. Make the atmosphere more inclusive.
If I had a million dollars to spend to increase youth involvement, I would create a series of performances specifically designed for youth with the goal of breaking down negative preconceptions about theater. These events, while not existing as a formalized part of the theaters season, would help to increase exposure and generate interest in the theater among youth audiences.
I would kick it off with an established play presented in the content of a massive social event - Macbeth on Halloween in an abandoned warehouse, for example, and then throw a party afterwards. Such an event is unlikely to produce any revenue, but the cost could be offset by partnering with alcohol distributors and organizations that manage parties at a large scale. I would advertise this event extensively using the methods I have outlined earlier. The cover would be relatively cheap, and people attending this event would be offered discounts for other plays in the theater’s season. If this performance was successful or generated a significant level of interest in my organization, I would perhaps stage similar events later in the year.
Secondly, I would do small, low-tech performances of new one act or ten minute plays in different bars on a bi-weekly basis. I would be extremely discriminating in choosing these plays, make them comedic, festive, and entertaining, and ensure that the subject matter would be relevant for a youth audience. Like the massive social events, these smaller projects would help promote what was being produced in the theater’s regular season. Again, the longevity of this program would be determined by their relative level of success.
Tacking the problem from both directions and from outside the theater, I would approach an audience that is otherwise not theatrically inclined and hopefully remove negative, elitist associations they have with theater. As these peripheral programs gain traction and the perception is changed, I would deemphasize them and create an advocacy program with the theater that would reward patrons who brought new audience members to come and see performances. I know this sounds like an awfully long way to stretch a million dollars, but I have seen theaters work successfully with even tighter resources. I feel the trick really comes down to breaking through the barrier that causes youth to be uninterested in the first place. These blow out events can open the door, and once the door is open the focus can shift a little to sustainability. Once youth interest is there, arts organizations will not need to push as hard, youth involvement programs will become increasingly self sustaining.
BARRY: Thank you very much Ben. Your insights provide a much deeper look into your generation and how the sector will need to alter some of its thinking if we want to ratchet up our efforts to make sure we attract as many of the best & brightest of the next generations as we can. I really appreciate your particiaption here and your involvement in the arts.
LATER IN JANUARY ON BARRY'S BLOG:
An in-depth look at Americans for the Arts Political Action Committee - the Arts Action Fund - and how the arts sector is moving to becoming more political. Also some thoughts on how the sector is already impacting politics and candidate stands on issues important to us in the context of this exciting and fascinating political year of change. Interview with Bob Lynch and Nina Ozlu.
Have a great week.