Why Do Young People Not Go To The Theatre?

Posted on 02 December 2010 Written by

I don’t believe for one moment that there is a universal answer to this question nor do I believe that the points outlined in this article are the only factors which contribute to the issue. What I do believe lies at the heart of this matter is the perspectives of young people towards an apparent elitist medium.

Theatre in the eyes of young people is elitist, whilst they may not use this terminology in their everyday language their reasons for not attending theatre lies with this word and perspective. Theatre is ultimately elitist because it is expensive. The majority of young people perceive theatre to be closely linked with musicals, especially those long-running West End ‘all singing, all dancing’ shows. The West End boasts a healthy amount of musicals, but it also boasts a rather hefty ticket price where even the cheapest tickets are around £35 for often inadequate views of the stage. If young people perceive theatre to be related to the ticket prices and shows of the West End – then already the perspectives of young people on attending theatre is damaged.

Young people do not have vast amounts of money, they are in education, they might have a small part time job or in most cases rely upon their parents for a monthly allowance. To spend £35 on a theatre ticket is not a regular occurrence and ultimately attending the theatre becomes something more than an ‘ordinary night’ out. If theatre is seen as an event, or something which you have to rely upon the parental assistance to attend, it is pushed onto a pedal-stall for those people who can and do afford to attend regularly. Anything which is out of reach of your average young persons spending allowance is elitist.

Of course, none of this takes into account the subsided theatre which should attract young people because of its inexpensive tickets that are aimed at those who can’t afford top price tickets. But this all goes back to the perceived notion that theatre lies within the West End and musicals world.

There are numerous ways in which a young person can gain cheap tickets especially with schemes such as A Night Less Ordinary (ANLO), Entrypass, Access All Arias, and FreeB. This is all very well, but it’s getting young people to understand outright that there are these options available to them, it’s about educating them that theatre extends beyond the West End, and understanding that some of the most exciting work happening in theatre is in the subsidised sector. To put it simply, young people have to be taught to look beyond the commercial West End and the belief that it has to be seen as ‘an event’.

ANLO went to great lengths to engage with those who wouldn’t otherwise attend the theatre and regardless of the criticism the scheme has attracted through the hasty rollout young people did go and 72.8% of the allocated tickets were given out. The very name of the project: A Night Less Ordinary attempted to break down some of the perceived notions of theatre – most notable the perspective of theatre being a night out of the ordinary – an event or occasion. However, those engaged through the project are now being left to fend for themselves as the scheme ends early next year.

I also believe that we must look towards reality TV-shows that have been somewhat of a double-edged sword when it comes to young people and theatre. The medium of television and it’s wide-spread appeal is still prominent (although reports are suggesting that people engage more with the Internet than television), and is popular culture. The recent flurry of Andrew Llyod Webber shows such as How To Solve A Problem Like Maria? and I’ll Do Anything where contestants fight it out (or sing it out as the case may be) for a place as one of the leading roles in Webber’s next musical has done a lot for theatre. There were record box office sales at the shows when they opened including a vast young person following. They engaged young people in their homes to the possibilities of musical theatre, and encouraged them afterwards to attend the show – but they also made it clear that yet again theatre lies in the West End and the inflated ticket prices.

The problem that theatres will find is the pressure for their audiences to include young people will ultimately put pressure on their education and outreach departments. In some cases even the local theatre’s will be dealt a blow in the recent government cuts which see’s all local authorities budgets cut by 28% – and already councils seeing the arts as the easiest route to take. If you can’t attend your local theatre, what is the next best thing?

From a young persons perspective there are several factors that fuel the lack of attendance. The first being that of price, the higher the ticket price, the further we go at pushing young people away from the arts. They want cheap or free tickets and they want to feel like they are getting something for their money. “It isn’t cool” – well actually, it is cool, and it’s our duty to change this perspective. Another factor that seems to play a part is the educational factor to theatre – where throughout your schooling years you have to attend theatre trips for either English or Drama classes. Too many young people then associate attending theatre as an educational tool. So rare is it for schools to take their class to see a film at the cinema which remains abundance of younger audiences – it’s all about perspective. In case you wondering why I make such bold statements, this forum makes an interesting read.

Young people not attending theatre is a curious matter, that requires everyone involved within the theatre industry to do their bit in promoting their work. It requires more accessible and free resources such as A Younger Theatre to point young people in the right direction and to further their engagement. It will take arts organisations working harder to ensure that they make their venue and work accessible and friendly for young people – even if that is showing an outright support for them. It doesn’t have to cost massive amounts of money – it involves ultising those young people who are already engaged with the arts, to spread the news to their friends and family that theatre is for young people.

In an ideal world, commerical theatre would be more willing to direct their audiences – especially young people – to the subsidised sector, where there are ample opportunities for engagement and cheaply. In an ideal world, young people will be open to attend the latest hot new writer at the Royal Court instead of the block buster film at the cinema. In an ideal world, A Night Less Ordinary would still be going and working. In an ideal world young people wouldn’t just perceive theatre as the West End with musicals, but as a subsided sector too. We don’t however live in an ideal world, so we must do what we can – educated, evaluate and provoke young people to see and engage with the arts on every level.

If you are a young person and want to find out how to get the most out of theatre, and cheaper tickets see our resource here.

Image from the ‘If I Ruled The World’ Festival at the BAC.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Craig Steele Says:

    I think something else to be taken into consideration is the ‘formality’ of theatre.

    Theatre has a specific time and location – and if you are not there at that time and location, you’re too late. This might sound a bit trivial at first, but if you consider how many young people structure other ways they watch media. TV – either ‘live’, or increasingly “on demand” (iPlayer, 4onDemand, YouTube) – at a time that suits them. Films – DVD rental (at a time that suits them), or even the cinema – in my experience many young people turn up at the cinema at a rough time, and then go to the next available showing (there can be half a dozen screenings a night for a popular film). In addition, it is not considered improper to turn up 10-15 mins into the screening for a film as it is normally adverts and trailers at that point – unlike the theatre, a 7.30 screening doesn’t really begin until around 8pm.

    So, in my opinion, one of theatres drawbacks is its sense of timeliness, and the effort required by young people to conform to it.

    Anyone agree?

  2. Catherine Love Says:

    This is a really interesting and important issue and I agree with all the points you’ve made. However, I think that a significant element of the problem is actually age itself.

    Theatre is primarily perceived as entertainment for people in their 30s or older and as a result this is the age group to which it is marketed. The media is as much to blame for this as the theatre industry because they have helped to plant the idea in young people’s minds that theatre is not aimed at them. If plays were marketed to young people in the same way as films or television programmes then perhaps theatre would be perceived as a ‘cooler’ form of entertainment.

    Obviously affordability is a big issue, but if anything is ever going to change then basic attitudes need to be targeted first and foremost.

  3. Lois Jeary Says:

    Craig, I feel that the issue of time is really important and I hadn’t thought about in that way before, so thank you. One thing that I find quite frustrating is that often the cheaper deals for young people come with relatively stringent time demands – having to queue in the morning for day returns, or pick up the tickets an hour or so before curtain up. I understand that these are often in place for the theatres to guard against being left with unused tickets; however, they serve to make it harder for young people to make the most of these deals. As a student I was in lectures instead of queuing for day tickets, and now that I work I am simply unable to get to theatres an hour ahead of time to collect tickets. Young people have busy schedules and simply won’t be willing to hang around for hours – in my opinion we have to ensure it is straightforward and convenient for them to use ticket deals, and that this is considered/balanced with the other box officing concerns of the theatres themselves.

  4. Nelson Says:

    I suspect lowering the prices won’t massively increase “young people” into theatres. I wish it was that easy. When your 20s there’s live music, bars, sports, TV, video games, film – so theatre is often not high on the list.

    I’m a perfect example. Before-30 I rarely attended theatre – seeing only West End, Broadway, etc. musicals with friends/family when they’d visit or when I was traveling. After-30, I stopped going to live concerts, bars, etc. and sought “quieter” entertainment… which led to theatre.

    A couple of the responses on the thestudentroom webboard said “it’s boring” and it’s partially true. Theatre tends to have more classical stories (nostalgic, historical fiction, etc.). It’s a style of storytelling that less about the present and more about the past. In my opinion improv, sketch comedy, stand-up seem to attract larger/regular audiences (ignoring giant musical theatre shows).

    Lastly, even for those older than 30, the core of the problem is that theatre is not “water-cooler” talk – lacking that wide audience reach like TV shows like Lost have. You see a show with a friend, date, spouse and talk about it afterwards, but outside of that… co-workers/friends might not be able to relate. Again, theatre stories are often “quiet” and not easily explainable like an action-oriented film.

  5. Josey De Rossi Says:

    I only discovered this site just before Christmas and I think its vital and alive. I’m going to quote from your article on ‘Why Do Young People Not Go To The Theatre?’ I reckon it has isolated some important issues. The most important one for me is the point you make about how theatre (doesn’t) fit into young peoples ‘ordinary’ lives. That is, what happens when ‘A Night Less Ordinary’ stops! The ‘school trip’ to the theatre is interesting too, mainly because if it wasn’t for my education I was part of a working class home which would never have brought me to see a show…ever! I’ve also been a drama teacher and it was a contract that I’d make with my students to meet them in the foyer of a theatre, not dressed in uniform and prepared to have an interesting time watching the chosen show. I’ve also been on the board of a Children’s Festival in which we placed international shows. So because of the limited time that the company was in town we did book out shows with huge school audiences that came to the theatre in bus loads. But maybe this proves your original comment even more. These are all extraordinary events that I’m referring to…what if theatre isn’t an everyday event? what if it’s extraordinary? What of its ritualistic/ religious origins in which something momentus like a ‘spring festival’ & the beginning of life is celebrated?

    I’ll keep reading your thoughtful blogs.

  6. MMckenzie Says:

    To Jake Orr

    Can I use some of your statements regarding on why young people are intimidated by theater? I kinda need it in class, and your blog helped me a lot in gaining new insights about this topic. Thanks! :)

2 Trackbacks For This Post

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  2. Young, Glossy and Sexy: The New Face of Theatre Journalism | Love Theatre Says:

    [...] opinions is A Younger Theatre. A recent article on the website attempts to diagnose the problem of why so many young people do not go to the theatre, something which may be attributed to a myriad of different factors. The root of the problem, [...]

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