For more than two years, TCG has been engaged in a 10-city, cross-disciplinary research project. The study, conducted by the Urban Institute and relying on random household surveys, is filled with good news—e.g., that at least 63 percent in each city attended a live not-for-profit performing arts event in the past 12 months; that more than 90 percent valued the arts as an important force in shaping and educating children. And that theatre was the most highly attended of the performing arts forms.
In Sarasota (where I was present at the unveiling of the research), one finding in particular astounded the audience: All age groups, researchers found, participate in arts attendance at roughly comparable levels. “How can this be?” one person asked. “I’m always struck by how old the audience seems to be whenever I go to a performing arts event.”
There are at least two possible explanations. First, comparable levels does not mean comparable numbers: The fact that the over-55 demographic in Sarasota is roughly seven times larger than the under-30 means that the audience will look significantly older, even as the percentage of under-30s who attend parallels that of the more senior members. Happy smiles all around.
But might it also be that these younger people are simply not patronizing the same arts organizations valued by their elders? And, if this is so, what factors might contribute to their indifference to the more traditional venues?
Can we imagine walking into a theatre with a truly fresh eye? We move (typically) into a large open space, decorated in muted colors. Although we’ve been told that every performance is unique and exciting, the lobby itself rarely transforms to reflect this; nor does the space engage or amplify our energies, preferring instead to narcoticize them through the bank-lobby-like feel. At a pre-arranged signal, a bell is rung or lights are blinked. We are told to dispose of our food and drink—not allowed in the hallowed hall!—and ushered into an auditorium, where we are told where to sit. We are given papers to read and study. We are warned that we will not be admitted if we arrive late, and that should we choose to leave before the officially sanctioned break, we may not be readmitted. We are put on our best behavior—no talking, please, no candy unwrapping or cell phones—and told to turn our attention to the front where the officially empowered presenters hold forth. We are told when (and how) to signal our appreciation, and, at evening’s end, we can even be subjected to additional experts who offer to lead us to a fuller “understanding” of what we’ve witnessed (often through lecture format).
In short, we’re back in school—1955 school, at that.
Having long assumed that the link between education level and likelihood of traditional theatrical attendance was linked to the intellectual dimension of our work, I now wonder whether this link isn’t at least partly about the subliminal experience we recreate: In essence, are theatres attracting the most educated in part because we recreate the environment in which those people have flourished? And might the hostility of those least likely to attend (those who haven’t finished high school, say) be related in part to their antipathy to that same set of subliminal clues?
This issue has come to haunt me more on the heels of attending hip-hop theatre more regularly. Here are large groups of young people, passionately engaged in theatrical expression, but not necessarily in our theatres. I have found my own assumptions about hip-hop fading away—these artists are passionately engaged in the world, wielding an astonishingly creative vocabulary, rigorous in craft, ambitious in intellectual reach. There is a range of style and aspiration, of aesthetic and culture. It indeed is many things, but there is clearly one thing it is not: It is not school—a distinction evident in ways as mundane as presence of food and drink, the disordered nature of seating, the interactive and explicit dialogue between audience and performer. And the audience is precisely the audience that many of us long to have–engaged, articulate, passionate, curious, voluble in idea and expression.
But herein lies the central conundrum: How do we reconcile the needs of audiences who have built many of our larger and older theatres—audiences for whom the school-like atmosphere, the ritual, the very event of theatre all have deep meaning to their lives—with the needs of these younger audiences, for whom these rituals are hollow and often serve as obstacles to their attendance?
I have no answers here. But if we are serious about our collective future—if we want to find ways to make our companies true homes and live up to our promise of excitement and energy in the very environment in which the work is mounted—we must go beyond the conversation about the work that has dominated our discussions for so long and focus on the environment in which that work is presented.
This issue includes the first of a multi-part series on hip-hop—an exploration into aesthetics and context that will, we hope, be stimulating and illuminating. To the artists in these pages and their colleagues, my deepest admiration and thanks. To the artists of my (older) generation, I wish you a happy journey: I expect many of you will feel exactly what I felt at a Ford Foundation convening on hip-hop—that I had never felt so old before, nor so hopeful for our future.
Ben Cameron is the executive of Theatre Communications Group.
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