‘A Night Less Ordinary’ Knowledge Share

Re-imagining A Night Less Ordinary

If the theatre industry is serious about wanting to engage more young people the most important thing to do is…

Recognise that price is not the only issue

Theatres are facing challenges in attracting young audiences – but what are the real issues affecting, and attitudes of, young people attending the theatre? Do we need to rethink programming and create products that engage young people?

The following speech was delivered by Jake Orr, Editor and Founder of A Younger Theatre, on 21st March 2011 at a Knowledge Share event on A Night Less Ordinary.
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Nothing that I can say today will take away from the fact that ticket prices are often too high, that marketing budgets are too low, and that both of these can have a direct impact on why young people do not attend theatre.

Through A Younger Theatre.com, the website I founded in 2009, we have often asked the question ‘What is theatre for/to young people?

The response is repeatedly the same:

Theatre is uncool,
Theatre is educational,
Theatre is expensive,
or Theatre is elitist.

It is my belief that when young people think of theatre, they see something that is out of reach. They do not see entertainment. They do not see art. They see high ticket prices. They see barriers, and restrictions. Theatre isn’t an open medium, it’s for those refined people who can afford it.

Of course, we all know this is not true. This is just a perspective of young people, but we’re not talking about a few, we’re talking about a high percentage of them. These are the barriers that we, as those attempting to put ‘bums on seats’, need to understand when targeting younger audiences.

“Theatre is educational, cinema is entertainment.”

This statement came from young people describing the difference between the two. Young people frequently perceive the link between theatre and education as a barrier. As part of their English and Drama classes they are rounded up, put on coaches, taken to the theatre under the supervision of their teachers, and then told they must write a report on it. What part of this is fun? One of my first experiences of theatre was through my school. I was lucky enough to find enjoyment from it, but for the rest of my classmates it was all about the report, essay and exam.

To some, in an environment alien to them, theatre starts and ends with education, which is a stigma hard to break later in life. Of course school trips to theatres help to expose young people to performance and the arts, but with an increase in ticket prices and transportation costs, schools are cutting theatre visits, making it even more important that venues support and nurture young independent theatre going.

Theatre is the West End.

One of the biggest challenges we face is the perceived notion that theatre is only that within the West End. Musicals dominate the notion of theatre for young people. If it’s not a big budget musical then it’s usually something boring like Shakespeare or Chekhov.

If this is the case, then theatres have to challenge this perspective. Theatres need to think outside the box for marketing: be inventive, and go directly to young people. Don’t wait for young audiences to possibly come to your venue, go, speak to and engage with them. Actively promote your work and let young people know their local theatre is actually there for them.

“Theatre is not advertised for young people.”

Most of the organisations present today offer discounts and deals for young audiences – but how many of these are widely promoted and accessible? Possibly one of the obstacles of A Night Less Ordinary was its over-complicated process for getting tickets. If theatres are to challenge perspectives and make theatre accessible, then young people have to know about this.

Currently, marketing material is not targeted at younger audiences unless it is a show that is particularly designed for them. How then do we engage young people through marketing? I believe that it’s a question of using the young audiences you already have to encourage, support and nurture future audiences. Theatres that have incorporated student ambassadors and youth panels have already made the leap towards actively endorsing theatre for a younger demographic. Through using a pre-existing young audience, hopefully a viral effect through friends and social platforms will take hold. Do not underestimate the power of word-of-mouth for young people. If huge marketing budgets are out of the question, use a direct face-to-face method and social networking sites to promote your work.

It’s not just marketing that can be an issue; it’s also the organising of a trip that is challenging. Young people do not attend cultural events on their own, they tend to go in groups and unless you’re Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga, the chances of advance ticket sales are slim. Spontaneity is something that theatre doesn’t always allow for. Screenings at the cinema are staggered and varied allowing more flexibility. Theatres are limited by performance times and show lengths. What is in the theatre today is gone tomorrow.

Imposed Rules

The imposing of rules on attending theatre only restricts and confuses first time audiences.

You must collect tickets by a certain time.
You must bring ID.
You must remain in your seat.
You must not eat.
You must not speak.

These rules don’t encourage, they restrict. If I were attending for the first time, I would be put off by them. We must remember that for those of us working in the arts and regular audience members, theatre etiquette is taken for granted. This has to be encouraged within young people, not imposed. Possibly older audiences need to be educated to incorporate younger members.

Equally, scheduling and running times sees shows coming down late at night. Young people have to travel home, rely upon parents to pick them up, or contend with homework or coursework. All of these can restrict younger people attending theatre.

How do we inspire a young audience to attend theatre when there are so many unspoken rules and restrictions? Who explains these rules? Whose duty is it to make younger audiences understand? How many of you provide additional information for first time theatre goers?

Inspiring

I believe that it is the duty of each organisation to see the potential in their productions for new young audiences. If we can connect with them today, this is a legacy that will continue throughout their lives.

In the wise words of Lyn Gardner, “If theatre can’t afford the young, it can’t afford the future”.

I couldn’t agree more. Success is not just a single visit, it’s repeated attendance across all your organisations.

Theatre Product

If most theatre is seen as boring and uncool for younger audiences, is it a question of the work that is being produced and recieved? Are we actively making theatre that caters for an older audience, and ignoring new generations?

I think we have to acknowledge that not all theatre will be appealing to young people, and what is seen as ‘classic’ could seem uninspiring and dated. We need to know what young people want to see on the stage and acknowledge that the subjects that interest young people are not the same as ten or twenty years ago. I believe that through consulting with young people in core artistic decisions we can help to inspire and challenge perspectives on theatre. There are already some excellent examples of this such as the Takeover Festival at York Theatre Royal.

As a young person myself, I actively try and engage others through A Younger Theatre.com, which acts as a point of reference and platform for discussions. Yet there are still thousands of young people who miss out on the opportunities to actively engage with theatre. Through recognising that price, product, education and perceived ideas limit younger audiences, I hope that in some way you as arts organisations can take up the challenge of inspiring young audiences to attend your venue.

If we do not engage them today, who will see the fantastic theatre of tomorrow?