Theatre As Broccoli

I may or may not have been perfectly clear in earlier blogs but I am looking for a new job.  Not because I WANT to be looking for a new job.  I really liked the old one, and saw great potential for me & for the company in having a long working relationship.  And while I take some responsibility for this happening, there is much about why what happened is still, and I believe always will be, a mystery to me.  Sadly.

Now, however, here I am, hitting the pavement again (mostly in a web world way, not literally), doing the round of sending out cv’s and brilliant cover letters, answering questions, asking my own, re-thinking what I thought I knew about myself, about my work life, about theatre, about well… everything.

As I’m aiming for a marketing director’s job for a good sized theatre company, or the GM of a small- to medium-sized theatre company (having done both, and knowing my strengths & weaknesses in both areas pretty well), I have been seriously considering how marketing theatre will be, must be, changing over the next few years.  If not sooner!

Earlier today, I was tweeting with a fellow theatre professional, who asked me about a Tweet I sent out about creating younger audiences.  So I actually sat down and wrote some of this out for him.  I’m going to abbreviate it quite a bit – I don’t want to give away all my secrets before some smart theatre company hires me!! – but I also want to emphasize something that I think is important, especially in light of Neal Gabler’s latest rant about culture.

Not every form of culture is meant for everyone.  Like Neal Gabler, I don’t like modern art per se, although there are some pieces I do like, and I will exclude Alexander Calder from that blanket statement because I love his stuff entirely & completely.  However, unlike Neal Gabler, I really enjoy classical music quite a bit, and am, in fact, working to it right now.  I will exclude from my blanket appreciation of classical  music anything composed by a German in the 20th century, but otherwise, I find such music inspiring, soothing, and redemptive.

That being said, I believe that everyone should try every kind of culture once or twice, or even three times if you’re given the option to go out with friends.  Mother was right: you won’t know if you don’t try.  But trying also includes cultural institutions.  Symphonies, museums, dance companies, theatres… they all must be open to trying new programming ideas and trying new ways of marketing.

It makes me want to shout out loud: PEOPLE, YOUR AUDIENCE IS OLD.  And they are getting older and they are dying.  It doesn’t matter if you’re doing well with them now, you won’t be next year, or five years from now, and certainly won’t be ten years from now.  And it’s not good enough to say that baby boomers are also getting older, they’ll come along and fill in the seats their dead parents have left behind.  Why do you think that?

They’re not coming now.  What are you going to be doing differently in five or ten years that will make them jump up (or carefully stand up before that knee replacement) and say “Let’s go to the theatre, Chelsea!”  (because you know there’s a raft of baby boomers coming along named Chelsea…) when they have never, ever darkened your door before.

They don’t know that theatre is, or could be, riveting and funny at the same time.  They’re patently afraid of classical music because they’ve never listened to it before and their friends tell them it’s too fussy or to highbrow or, god forbid, too elite.  They look at paintings and think their kid could do better or, worse, think that they can ‘make do’ with a print from (another) museum!

Cultural institutions have to bring in this audience now!  Today!  Are they doing it?  I don’t think so.  Are there perfect answers?  I don’t think so.  But is the attempt worth it?  I absolutely do think so.

And here’s what I think (and shared with my Twitter friend) about trying to reach even younger audiences:

I think the first thing theatres need to do is recognize that the attention span of most young people is short, brutally short.  I personally blame this on Sesame Street, but whatever the root cause, it is encouraged by the constant barrage of new information and new entertainment coming at them – often without their seeking it out!

So if I were programming for a younger audience – late teens to early 20s – I would find/write/adapt/steal stories they already know and adapt them for a MAX 30 minute live show.  And not a cheap-y show either – but powerhouse (albeit young) acting, enhanced but not overwhelmed by lights, music, sound effects, video effects.  You’ll lose your shirt on this, because I would charge $10, taxes in.  Less, it’s not even what a movie costs so how could it be worthwhile.  More, and they could buy two more coolers at the club they’re going to afterwards anyway.

I have worked with teenagers and early 20-year olds off-and-on pretty much my entire life – which is a very, very long time – and I know this much is true:  Young people don’t like what they don’t know.  And they especially don’t like it if their friends don’t like it.

Think of theatre as broccoli.  Young people don’t like it, usually, until someone puts a really great cheese sauce on it.  Some of them still won’t like it, and some of them will only care about the cheese sauce, but some will discover that broccoli is actually quite delicious and come back for seconds and even, god forbid, thirds, and maybe not need or want nearly as much cheese sauce.

And once they’re used to not having the cheese sauce, you can start to serve really hot, well-prepared, fresh, organic broccoli, charging more, costing less, and building an audience.

So, you know, if you’d like more of my broccoli recipe, I am looking for a job.  And your comments.

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