When confronted with the stark reality that “the youth” won’t buy theater tickets, theaters oftentimes place the blame on the school system. The argument goes that decreased arts funding in schools begets students who aren’t accustomed to coming to theater, and that by not being exposed to theater at a young age we’re losing all our potential patrons. It’s a chestnut that found its way into The Summit, and it’s a position that Isherwood floated in an article about Rocco Landesman’s tenure at the NEA.
It’s also a myth.
While it may be true that arts education is on the decline, is that really a primary cause for declining theater attendance?
I personally didn’t receive much arts education as a child, and yet here I am in the theater. MFA programs are doing more robust business than ever before. (In fact they barely existed a generation ago.) Where did all those eager young applicants come from? I see hundreds of young audience members at black box theaters enjoying the heck out of off-off Broadway. But those same audience members won’t buy season tickets to larger theaters. Is it really a lack of education that’s stopping them from becoming subscribers?
Take the basic argument of “We need more theater in schools so more people will go see theater later in life” and substitute comparable forms of entertainment where young people are already dropping boatloads of money. The very logic of the construction collapses.
Consider the following assertions:
- No one likes cooking anymore because we stopped teaching Home Ec in the schools.
- We need more video game training in classrooms to ensure the next generation of Xbox users.
- If we don’t teach kids how to listen to standup comedy, Louis CK will go bankrupt.
- Kids who never played live music in school just plain won't pay for a Jay-Z concert.
Now consider the converse, swapping out theater for things that we do teach in schools:
- Good thing we taught kids biology, because zoo attendance is up 50%.
- Colonial Williamsburg is popping thanks to US History classes.
- Now that we have English in schools, bookstores are saved!
- My classroom had a PC, therefore this ipad is nonsense.
The truth is that no one needs to be trained to enjoy theater. Theater is primal. When a show is electric – when a play surprises and delights and actually says something new and truthful about the world that we live in – there’s a collective energy in the room that needs no explanation. It’s just that a lot of theater is terribly boring, and we're not doing all we can to respect audiences enough to present them with challenging work.
A lot of theater buildings feel inaccessible, too. A clubhouse for people already in the know, what with their arcane ticketing rules and inflexible schedules and clueless volunteer ushers and lack of lobby seating and strict bans on beverages in the house. I’ve heard theater people complain, “Young people will drop $100 on a restaurant, but won't buy a theater ticket!” Well would you go to a restaurant where you have to make a prepaid nonrefundable deposit, your reservation time can’t be changed, the host is just a volunteer who wants to eat there for free, if you buy a drink at the bar you can't bring it to your table, you have to be totally silent at dinner, there's only 5 items on the menu and the menu never changes, and you’re kicked out of the restaurant exactly 10 minutes after your dinner? If you wouldn't go to that restaurant, is it because you lack education?
Audiences don’t have a problem with arts education. Theaters have a problem with hospitality. Most efforts at bringing in young audiences are condescending at best. Designated Twitter Seats... because kids can’t stop tweeting. Free Beer with Your Ticket... because all kids want to do is get wasted. No efforts made at changing up the actual plays.
In truth theaters have a serious curatorial problem when it comes to choosing plays that a young, diverse audience can get behind. The fantastic documentary Miss Representation introduces the concept of symbolic annihilation in the media, and it applies exceedingly well to the theater. Why would young people (or people of color, or women) bother coming to the theater when they’re so rarely depicted onstage, and when they're so rarely in command of the artistic process? Is our dwindling audience truly a reflection of the educational landscape, or is it a reflection of a chronic homogeneity onstage exacerbated by an attendant homogeneity in our staffing?
Even if there were some correlation between arts education and audience attendance, it will take a generation to fix the educational system and even more time to measure whether increased arts education had any downstream effect. Whereas we are facing a crisis of audience right here and now. We are in a war of attrition – a war that we know we are losing. In the midst of losing a war, you don’t get the luxury of saying, “I wish we had more military education.” The only recourse is a quick strategy change.
Instead of blaming something so distal as arts education, let’s look at the proximal barriers that are keeping young people out of the theater, and consider fixes we can implement now:
- To attract a young, diverse audience, present work that’s reflective of a young, diverse audience.
- Widen the perspectives being presented onstage.
- Place more faith in the artists.
- More funding for artists, less funding for buildings.
- Make the theater a more friendly and welcoming place.
- Make seeing theater easier on working parents.
- Lower the barrier of entry by lowering ticket prices.
Right now the institutional theater has the same demographic problems as the Republican Party: largely aging, largely affluent, largely White. If you truly want a young and diverse audience, you’re going to have fundamentally change up your programming in a way that may very well alienate your existing base. Which may be okay. Because that base isn't large enough to form a sustainable coalition.
It actually verges on arrogance, this tendency to blame arts education for our own shortcomings. It’s an elitist argument that absolves us of agency. “We can’t do anything about it! We’ve done all we can! They’re just too uneducated to appreciate theater!”
Am I arguing against education? Of course not. I’m just saying we owe it to ourselves to be more diligent about tracing causality. It’s easy to point the finger at arts education; that’s a factor beyond our control. But taking ownership over the factors we can control? That’s a much harder matter.