By Bill Hirschman
Teenagers may hold the survival secrets for South Florida theaters to build a crucial new generation of patrons.
Interviews with students this summer spoke of a theater that is relevant, affordable, accessible, less elitist, touching both the head and the heart, marketed through cyber-word of mouth, and pumped up with sensory candy. Above all, their interest has to be stimulated as early as elementary school and nurtured through young adulthood, they said.
Many of the ideas are being tried by area theaters already, but they fail to inject their art form into the consciousness of a majority of young people, the students said.
Few see this as clearly as Matthew Paszkiet, a 15-year-old from Jupiter playing the title role in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s all-student production of Hamlet this Saturday.
“If I’m walking with a group of friends and we’re going, ‘What shall we do today?’ Well, first thing usually would be let’s go to the beach or let’s hang out with the girlfriends…. When you say ‘theater,’ instantly, if you haven’t been exposed to theater, you say, ‘I’m not part of that.’’ The Dreyfoos school sophomore explained that theater has developed the reputation that “you have to be theatrical or you have to be artistic in some way to be able to enjoy it.”
But seeing the work is its own best sales pitch if its themes speak to teens and pre-teens, said Emily Rynasko, a 15-year-old Hobe Sound sophomore at The Pines School.
“When people can’t get something off their minds, that’s what promotes a conversation,” she said. “If one of my friends says ‘I have just seen this amazing show; you have to go see it; it was really something that made me think in a different way,’ I’d want to go see it right then.”
Those ideas surfaced repeatedly in conversations this spring and summer with students in the Hamlet production and in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Teen Ambassador program, which embeds students in local visits of national tours, requires them to write reviews and then pass the word through Facebook and tweets.
The teens thoroughly endorse the maxim that once a theater can actually get students into the seats, many become fans for life. The Maltz’s student production last September of its one-night-only The Laramie Project produced such strong word of mouth that demand exploded for a non-existent second performance. This year’s Hamlet has already added a second show.
Theater offers something they can’t get anywhere else, said Sarah Sharpe, a Broward Center Teen Ambassador from Cooper City: “It’s literally just two hours where you can allow yourself to feel anything…. It’s an amazing open experience, and you don’t have to be afraid of the judgment of all of your friends. It’s really a safe environment where you can be anything and do anything.”
Their comments reflect a glimmer of hope for the future of theatergoing. Conventional wisdom has long whispered that the bulk of the current audience will vanish in 20 years, perhaps as soon as 10 years. The loss of veteran patrons to mortality is not being replaced because most Boomers and their children did not grow up with the theater habit – and they have many more entertainment options.
Every generation does contain a core of ardent theater lovers. But the specter of half-empty houses is pushing many theaters to lean harder on existing programs aimed at nurturing a new generation of patrons. It encompasses Actors’ Playhouse’s extensive classes year-round to GableStage exporting Shakespeare productions into the schools and busing students to their mainstage productions at the Biltmore Hotel.
WHAT WORKS / WHAT DOESN’T
The visceral immediacy of theater does seduce a generation seeking unique stimulation, students said. Roberto Marin, a former wrestler and now a freshman at New World School of the Arts, said, “The actors are so intense, they become so much one with the role, that it makes me believe what was written 300 years ago is happening right now, in that moment.”
What would they pay their own money to see? Young audiences weaned on video games and movies’ special effects want a theater that envelops them with the theatricality unique to the art form. “Theater in a general sense needs to start becoming more of an experience than a performance. Audiences are going to want to be in the action rather than have to sit down and watch a performance. They want to be a part of it,” Paszkiet said.
A play must elicit a strong emotional reaction, said Charly Hamann, the 16-year-old Dreyfoos junior playing Queen Gertrude: “It needs to be something that makes me feel something, whether it’s The Music Man, which just makes you feel good, or (Palm Beach Dramaworks’) Dancing at Lughnasa or The Laramie Project — something that makes me relate, something that’s real, and something that you can leave with.”
A key factor is a play’s relevance to their own lives, at least the depiction of a world they recognize, Sharpe said. “My favorite show was next to normal.… There was something to relate to in every one of those characters. It’s so cool to see aspects of your own life and see how other people deal with those situations.”
But contradictory forces war inside young audience members: a desire for passive consumption like a movie audience and yet an amorphous quality that allows students to interpret the material their own way, Paszkiet said.
On one hand, “Audiences don’t like to work. I think in this day and age, you pull out a phone and play a game on it and it’s all there. All the imagination that your brain would create is all in front of you…. People are turned off by the fact that I have to go and I have to watch and I have to experience. That’s too much work.”
On the other hand, “they want to be able to walk away with their own story rather than be told ‘this is the theme of the story,’ ” Paszkiet said. He mentioned the Cirque du Soleil show in Orlando, La Nouba. “It had a storyline that was vague, but you could take away from it what you wanted. I connected with it on a personal level and I’m sure the person sitting next to me got a completely different story.”
It helps immensely if the marketing of a show has some cognizance that pop culture has evolved since the Baby Boomers’ generation. It makes a difference “when you say, Book of Mormon is by those guys who made South Park,” said Scot Dalbery of St. Thomas Aquinas. “Because teenagers want to go see shows like (the movie) The Hangover; not many kids want to see The Sound of Music.”
Western High student Katie Santoro said when her student colleagues sell peers on the musical Starlight Express, “they market that it’s a musical with roller skates. We market it at skate parks.”
That kind of youth-targeted marketing is rare, they said, although the Arsht Center has been stressing such approaches online for the past few years, especially on Facebook. But generally, the problem in getting students to theater is that theater is not part of their peers’ pop culture radar, the teens said. At a minimum, they don’t know a specific show is coming or what it’s about.
“Someone will pay $75 for a Beyonce ticket because they have been exposed to it; she’s free on the radio,” said Plantation High School’s Bryan Schall. “What theater is lacking is any exposure.”
The failure of theaters to get the word to the general student population was underscored by Mariana Alves of Deerfield Beach. When she tried to talk up shows she’d seen, “no one knew what Million Dollar Quartet was about. But when I told people about The Addams Family, they knew” – primarily because of its name recognition from the series of movies.
Virtually every teen agreed with Kiel Peterson, 16, Hamlet’s director, that word of mouth trumps any other kind of marketing, although it’s as likely to come through social networking on Facebook and texting. The Teen Ambassador program, about to start its third year, aims directly at that conduit by requiring networking outreach as part of the program.
A significant roadblock in most students’ minds is the ticket price, said Teen Ambassador participant Kali Rosendo, a recent graduate of the University School at Nova Southeastern University. “You can get a movie ticket for $10 or you can stay home and watch Netflix for free. So when you say a ticket is like $45, you think I just don’t have that kind of money.” But in fact, that roadblock is a mirage; it’s a communication and perception problem. Almost every major theater offers student tickets that are, indeed, competitive with a movie.
Another misperception that must be eliminated is the off-putting image of elitism, said Schall. “When I go to the opera, I feel so out of place…. It’s like if you’ve haven’t seen the opera five times, then it’s like ‘This is for our group of 75-year-old opera viewers. Please don’t enter this group.’ ”
The irony is that good theater is inclusive, said Victoria Pavlock, 16, Hamlet’s hands-on producer. “I just love is that it really has a spot for everyone…. You don’t have to (be artistic) to do well. I’m the producer of this show and most of my day is crunching numbers and sending out emails.”
WHAT THEATERS ARE DOING
No one understands the need to lure these students like professional producers and artistic directors. Almost every theater has a summer camp, many have winter programs, most select shows with content aimed directly at young audiences. Several hire a director of education such as The Plaza Theatre in Manalapan. Some have full-fledged conservatory programs such as the Maltz.
For a quarter-century, Actors Playhouse has offered a wide range of programs from children’s shows like the recent Pied Piper of Hamlin to a full curriculum of classes. “I haven’t seen anything we’ve done that hasn’t worked,” said Producing Director Barbara Stein.
The goal is to expose youngsters to theater as early as possible and then keep them hooked. The teenagers interviewed this summer bore that out. A majority had been exposed to the arts by their parents, although a few discovered it late in their adolescence as the first place they felt they fit in.
No one expects even a smattering of these youngsters to become theater professionals. The hope is that they will grow into patrons paying for their own tickets, season subscribers, perhaps board members, certainly donors with fond memories of working in theater as a youngster.
As a result, most producers see these as long-term efforts requiring patience, said Kenneth Kay, education director for The Plaza Theatre who led a student production this summer of William Mastrosimone’s play about teen suicide, Sleepwalk.
“Prying that little iPod out of their hand is the challenge and getting them involved,” said Kay. He ran an extensive youth program while heading Blowing Rock Stage Company in North Carolina with his wife, Kim Cozort, who currently teaches at the Maltz and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. They want to do more than train budding actors. It extends to developing a child’s own creativity and an appreciation of the arts. “We focus not on results but on the process, on a foundation that they can adapt to their own skill set and manipulate in their own way” in their future life, Kay said.
Race or a parent’s income level has not posed a barrier in making meaningful connections. Some companies’ outreach through the school system has focused on bringing theater into inner city schools. Most of the time, the universality of the work erases those demographic lines.
“Some are lost way before you get to them,” Kay said. “But there are kids who are dragged to a play because it’s a class and then find themselves leaning from the edge of their seat. If you can grab one or two like that….”
He remembers a talkback session on Sleepwalk in which students asked virtually nothing and seemed unaffected. But “the next day, (the actors) got a standing ovation from a group that was the same age and from the same organization. The talkback was absolutely electric.”
Stein calls it “an investment…. Unfortunately, everything takes time and you can’t always measure it…. You just hope somewhere along the way, some years down the road, it will embrace everybody.”
But anecdotes about success are common. Stein cited entire families coming to her mainstage musicals Les Miserables, Hairspray and Godspell.
“Many of the people who come here now, they came with their parents or grandparents 25 years ago,” Stein said. “Even when I go to purchase something with the company credit card, some bagboy there says, ‘I used to go to Actors Playhouse as a kid.’ Little by little, all these people are coming back because they came on a school field trip.”
At Miami Theatre Center, the former Playground Theatre in Miami Shores, founder Stephanie Ansin runs one of the largest programs in the region, busing in thousands and thousands of elementary school children to see shows that don’t talk down to children, but which are jammed with music, lights, imaginative sets and costumes. A woman recently asked her parents to celebrate her 18th birthday at an adult MTC show because she had seen several of Playground’s shows when she was a child.
“All you can do is give them good work. And hope,” Ansin said.
But one shot per child is often the extent of many school-theater partnerships. There’s rarely a second subsidized exposure for any specific student to cement the experience or to underscore it as an ongoing entertainment option.
This is especially problematic when a student’s first exposure is to a show that doesn’t speak to them, much as any theater piece does not mesh with every theatergoer’s taste.
“They have to see more than one. They might not like one kind, but they might like another,” Rynasko said.
Ansin said a board member likens the challenge to the need for government to provide foster children with a supportive continuum of care as they mature through the system.
Harming that effort are cuts in public funding of arts education. Schall said, “The loss in arts education in our schools is like setting up this never ending cycle where you’ll have parents who won’t encourage the arts and then their kids won’t get involved in the arts.”
It’s not just money, but the lack of interest among some educators. One Teen Ambassador noted that her principal came to the induction of students into the national thespian society, but noticeably never attended a student production.
As a result, some theaters are trying to keep teen enthusiasts’ interest alive after they graduate. Some theaters like Actors Playhouse are trying to lure twenty-somethings and young professionals to make shows part of an evening out, featuring lower prices and package deals. But most people exposed to theater as children are often too busy and cash-strapped to attend theater as young parents. It may be another two decades before they return as regular theatergoers.
The Maltz and Broward Center projects prove that nothing reinforces theater as a life-long touchstone so much as hand-on close-up experiences for teens. The Teen Ambassador program has placed students in the sound booth during a show, given them backstage tours, shown them that there are entire arts careers that have nothing to do with performing in a spotlight.
But in the end, the teens said, success remains rooted in giving their peers a taste.
“You see all those things in movies, action and things close to your heart,” Rynasko said. “If we can show them that theater can be that, too, but it’s live, you’re actually there with the people telling the story, isn’t that even cooler?”
Hamlet (abridged) plays 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24. Evening show sold out. Maltz Jupiter Theatre Youth Artists Chair program, performing at the Lighthouse Artscenter, 373 Tequesta Drive, Tequesta. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for students. 46-$68, available by calling (561) 575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org. For a promotional video, click here,
Applications are for 24 slots in the Broward Center’s Teen Ambassador programs are due Sept. 6. The program runs from October to May and requires participants attend one meeting per month, attend and review at least one performance per month for which tickets will be provided, maintain a minimum “B average” throughout the school year, and have access to at least one social media account. More details and an application are available at http://tinyurl.com/mz5b32b.