“When I was a student at Glenville High School in Cleveland in 1949,” says playwright Adrienne Kennedy, recalling an early experience of attending theatre, “we saw The Barretts of Wimpole Street. As was the fashion then, we spent time with the poems of Browning and Barrett with dutiful joy, as our teachers expected. We read passages aloud from plays on shelves in our drama room. There was no sense of rebellion or coercion. When we had to memorize passages from plays of the ’30s and ’40, we felt we were being allowed into a magic world. Students seemed rapt to go on this journey into the world of Hamlet, or to explore their own narrative writing. Over the course of the 30 years I taught, I never had a rebellion.”
Times have changed. Last fall, I attended a university production of an old Eugene O’Neill play. The response of the audience, composed mostly of undergraduate students—non-theatre majors required to see the play as part of an introductory theatre course, per core curriculum—progressed from rude to rebellious over the course of the performance.
About two scenes into the play, the students began to grumble among themselves. It was clear they felt they didn’t relate to the story. They were bored, and they resented being forced to attend a three-hour play. But instead of leaving the theatre and taking a zero for the assignment, which might have constituted a kind of nonviolent protest, they began speaking and laughing with each other. Some were asked to leave, but those who remained continued to interrupt the performance with chatter and flash selfies, videos, and a laser pointer. One performer was hit in the eye with the beam.
While that audience’s behavior was unacceptable, I wonder whether we might learn something from it. In some ways, the unadulterated responses of those disgruntled, unengaged students may be a gift. As theatremakers and educators, we have an immense responsibility to deal with this demographic in particular, for they are the next generation of audiences who will—or will not—attend shows created by the next generation of theatre artists.
We might see that disrupted O’Neill performance as a call to reexamine the invitation we extend to student audiences—to question our programming choices as well as our motivations for assigning performances to students in the first place. In short, it can be an opportunity to ask ourselves: What do we gain, and what do we lose, when we invite the next generation of theatregoers into our theatres?
Let’s begin with the invitation. Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, has put a lot of thought into how and why new audiences should be invited into the theatre.
“The first thing we want them to know when they come into the theatre is that, no matter who they are, we want them to see our shows,” Shalwitz told me in a phone interview. “They must feel valued. Some theatres send mixed signals that sometimes, unintentionally, make the audience feel unwelcome. This can happen through play selection, email blasts, pre-show lectures, and so on. Whether you’re dealing with someone who has never been to the theatre or someone who has never seen a particular show, point-of-entry experiences are crucial.”
Woolly Mammoth is not associated with a university, but Shalwitz’s ideas are applicable to those that are. Point-of-entry experiences are the responsibility of educators; when audiences are first-time theatregoers, the stakes are much higher.
For playwright, educator, and activist Caridad Svich, contextualizing the work is key. “In an educational forum, there’s a lot at stake,” she said. “My question always is: As educators, isn’t part of our job to frame the experience for our audience? Maybe this can be done through a pre-show talk, or building a dramaturgy wall, or other means of engaging your student audience.”
Playwright David Henry Hwang, head of playwriting at Columbia University in New York City, echoes Svich, saying he’s never faced a hostile crowd like the one described at the top of this article. His experiences with younger audiences, like that of many others who joined this conversation, have been “mostly wonderful,” he said. He attributes that to efforts to engage with them before and after shows.
“Some of my shows, such as Yellow Face, had regular student matinees,” Hwang noted. “The actors enjoyed these as some of their most engaged audiences. The idea is to introduce young people to theatre and start a lifelong theatregoing habit. On the other hand, student matinees can also be seen as a babysitting opportunity by the teachers and a development/income-generating obligation by the theatres.”
That last point alludes to potential complications. University theatre programs sometimes allocate resources based upon how well their classes and shows are attended, but there can be a conflict of interest between the need to get “butts in the seats” and the desire to encourage meaningful theatrical experiences for students. Ideally the invitations should come from a place of generosity and a genuine need to share work with audiences. But due to the inherently coercive nature of assigning students to see shows for academic credit, it can be tricky to communicate that message.
“I have seen teachers trying very hard to get students from outside the theatre department to attend a production on campus,” Svich said. “And I’ll hazard a guess that if some professor doesn’t assign a play or musical or live performance event, there may be students that spend their entire lives without ever seeing a show. Going outside your comfort zone is important in any educational process. How does one learn in life? By pushing at boundaries, by going outside of the familiar, by taking little risks to become a more evolved human being.”
Still, there are some works—many of them personal favorites of theatremakers—that simply don’t make great introductions for new audiences, no matter how much context we provide. While there are strong arguments for exposing students to Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliére, and Chekhov, we shouldn’t ignore one of the greatest resources we have in the theatre today: the living playwright.
It stands to reason that living playwrights, entrenched as they are in the minutiae of our shared contemporary life, are more likely to write plays that can speak to contemporary audiences. But that doesn’t make their work risk-free for theatres: Which works, out of the vast array of those being written, might connect with a particular set of students? In a culture that’s changing faster and faster all the time, how do we make better educated guesses about play choices?
“In the 1950s, audiences were largely white and well educated,” Shalwitz pointed out. “They had shared history, shared knowledge. But now our audiences are so much more diverse. How do we meld this new kind of audience together?”
The melting-pot conditions Shalwitz described may necessitate some counterintuitive thinking. “We recently did An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins,” Shalwitz said. “This play crosses lots of boundaries. It’s not politically correct at all—it’s equally difficult for white, black, and Latino audiences. But the diverse audiences we had for that show were some of the most exciting we’ve ever had. They gave each other permission to laugh at offensive jokes. They helped each other rise to the occasion, and to the challenges the play presents.” Watching and feeling an audience grow together in this way, Shalwitz feels, is one of the most exciting things that can happen in the theatre.
But while Jacobs-Jenkins’s play has already proved successful in a number of markets, a university may also choose, if resources exist, to produce new works written specifically for their audiences. Svich, for instance, was recently commissioned to write a new play for Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc. Immersed in thoughts about themes and characters in The Tempest, but at the same time eager to relate the piece to the digital age, Svich fashioned The Breath of Stars. The play is a 90-minute free-verse performance poem for the theatre, riffing on The Tempest and incorporating video, projections, live feed, music, and dance—“total theatre,” according to Svich.
“A great deal of the play centers on Facebook’s presence in many of our lives,” Svich explained, “and how that disembodied space questions, contests, and repositions notions of bodily presence and absence. Live image-tweeting was part of the show’s pre-show. Audiences could see their images uploaded live, and those images, in turn, became part of the show’s design, as it were, each night.”
Acknowledging and using new technologies can be one way to generate dialogue between the traditions of the theatre and new audiences, but it’s not the whole story. “My mantra when teaching young playwrights and theatre creators is, ‘Theatre is not enough,’” proffered Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen of Chicago. “In other words, merely creating theatre is not an end in itself—you have to challenge the audience to think and feel and somehow change from how they entered the theatre that day. And this is where having some idea of who your audience is and crafting the show toward them is vastly important.”
Does this mean we should be crafting and presenting theatre exclusively by and about twentysomethings? Probably not, according to playwright Christopher Shinn, who teaches playwriting at NYC’s New School.
“I loved seeing adults onstage when I was a teenager,” said Shinn. “We do young people a disservice if we think they only want to see themselves or their culture represented. In fact, more cross-generational dialogue would be a good thing, given the increasing isolation generations feel from one another in this demographic-focused culture.”
On the other hand, producing for student audiences while giving them the impression that the work is purposefully ignoring them is a recipe for having them simply tune out. One way to overcome this challenge is to literally invite them into the performance.
“Last year I devised and directed an adaptation of Peter Pan called Never-Landing,” said Allen, who has created more than 60 audience-interactive pieces for theatre with the Neo-Futurists (though Allen is no longer affiliated with the company, and Never-Landing was not a Neo-Futurists show). “We established the stage as Neverland, and went out and brought six audience members onstage to perform the show with us. The show basically consisted of games which illustrated various points in life and the themes of Peter Pan. At the end of the show, we went to each person in the room and gave them the choice of staying with us and continuing to play games, or returning to their real lives and the real world. It was an actual choice!”
“Don’t we all really want audiences to sit forward and engage?” asked Rebecca Wright of Applied Mechanics, a Philadelphia-based company that focuses on interactive work. “We do a disservice whenever we say, ‘Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show’—to audiences of any age. Our work says to its audience, ‘You are a vital part of the performance event. Come on in and help us make this happen.’ Young people tend to respond to this invitation with enormous open-heartedness and good will.”
That doesn’t always happen, of course. “I frankly don’t blame students for getting restless at some of our more difficult shows,” Hwang said, acknowledging that questions of quality and pertinence can’t be ignored. “If the experience obviously isn’t going well, I think teachers should have the option to cut their losses and leave the performance (at intermission, of course). Adults do that all the time.”
Indeed, if students are denied agency, they may understandably become restless. We could blame this on cultural and generational differences, but where do we go from there? “If an audience becomes hostile,” Svich reasoned, “can this be a teaching moment? Do we have the power to stop the show and have a conversation?”
For Allen, the answer is obvious. “If someone in the audience asks a question or makes a comment, the artists are immediately present to respond to it with our hearts and minds and souls,” he offered. “Like all good nonviolence training, we seek to never let the audience objectify us from a distance.”
Allen went on to tell the story of one performance where an audience member felt compelled to interrupt the performance.
“We were performing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind for a high school audience,” Allen said, when an attendee began heckling actor Dave Awl, who is gay. “This one kid couldn’t control himself—he shouted ‘Fag!’ in the midst of a huge auditorium full of 800 kids. The entire place went, ‘Ooh!’ and then fell dead silent. Being a good Neo-Futurist, Phil Ridarelli stopped the show, stepped down to the front of the stage, and said, ‘Would the young man who said that like to stand up?’ Nobody moved a muscle. After a pause, Phil said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t think you’d be brave enough,’ and, after a beat, we resumed the performance.
“At the end of the show numerous kids came up onstage and apologized to Dave personally,” Allen concluded. “We heard afterward that every single class in the auditorium went back to their rooms and had a discussion about the incident with their teachers.”
In today’s world, we know that if an individual or a group feels marginalized, silenced, or powerless, they will at some point and in some way speak up or act out. In a university setting, even as we strive to teach young people about a given subject (the theatre, in this case), it is equally important that we give them the tools to think critically for themselves, because all too often they aren’t getting this training elsewhere. And the resulting conversations are potentially enlightening for all parties involved.
“I realize this is blasphemy for a theatremaker to put forth,” Allen conceded, “but step back a minute and realize that the stage is a microcosm of the world—it’s a training ground for the behavior we would like to see practiced everywhere. We don’t want to create a nation of inactive blobs who passively sit by; we want to create a community of activists who, when they see someone being victimized, jump up and speak out. When there is an ethical wrong, they try to stop it. When they are being oppressed, they speak up and say, ‘I will not tolerate this! I demand to be treated like a human being!’”
The world has changed a great deal since Adrienne Kennedy first saw The Barretts of Wimpole Street with her high school class. Thanks to Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, young people know more about the lives of virtual strangers than they know of Shakespeare’s words and world. But it would be a mistake to disregard the culture in which we are working—that is, a youth culture accustomed to short-burst narratives, the absence of the fourth wall, and multiple outlets to participate in the story itself, including commenting afterwards. Our goal should not be to place blame upon the culture at large, but to make the theatre a more inclusive space.
It may do us no good to compete with the screens, but we might look productively at the ways they have changed the narratives of the world and the ways we interact with one another.
“If you are crafting a show for first-time theatregoers, you need to excite them with what theatre can do that movies and television cannot,” Allen said. “Otherwise they will compare them, and the screens will always win. Compared with what we can do onstage, the screens can more successfully and effectively transport you to other realms. But the excitement of the theatre is the immediacy it affords—the proximity, the visceral presence of other human beings, the possible intervention of the unknown. Any barrier which gets in the way of this human connection is our enemy.”
Some artists even feel that today’s deluge of digital technology could prompt a rebirth of the ancient live art of the theatre. “The theatre has become a radical art form because it is not mediated via technology,” said SITI Company artistic director Anne Bogart. “As the frame of the computer gets smaller, the depth of experience that theatre offers expands. Theatre is increasingly vital in the world we inhabit now and will inhabit in the near future.”
Shalwitz agrees, noting, “When I was growing up, they said TV will kill the theatre, the movies will kill the theatre—but they didn’t. I return again and again to the act of public witnessing. We place great importance on this simple act. That’s where the magic of theatre lies.”
When asked whether it’s ethical to require students to attend performances, an overwhelming majority of the people interviewed for this article responded that indeed it is. But the trick is to know why we are inviting them into the theatre—each institution will have its own answer—and to communicate that purpose effectively. For the sake of the theatre, let’s hope that reason is always something more than revenue.
The late Judith Malina of the deeply political Living Theatre shared some vital words with me in an interview in 2013, two years before she died. They may guide us as we invite new audiences into our theatres:
“The important thing is that, whoever you are performing for, you must have a very specific idea about what you’re talking about,” said Malina. “We can’t just say we want a better world. We can’t just say we want to destroy the old forms. The Living Theatre has always had an idea: We called ours ‘the Beautiful Nonviolent Anarchist Revolution.’ You can call yours whatever you want, but you must be clear about what you’re speaking for and against, and what it is you’re trying to inspire.”
David Dudley is a writer and graduate assistant at Southern Illinois University.