Last month, Isaac Butler posted a provocative column on his website, Parabasis, entitled No-Brainer Secrets Revealed!, about the best ways for theatre to reach younger audiences. Butler surmised that the best way to bring them in is to do uncompromising work and offer it at a reasonable price. The work will speak for itself. If you build it, Butler said, the audience will come.
Easier said than done? Doug Strassler followed up on this topic, digging further into the topic of where the new young audience is for Off-Off-Broadway. Doug asked for opinions and here is one sent to us from John Patrick Bray.
I think at last we've found an area where academia can respond to these concerns. I'm a PhD student at Louisiana State University. I produced a night of one-act plays during the week of Halloween: "It's Scary, Y'all! Horror Fest 2009." As part of my funding, I teach an Intro to Theatre course to non-majors. I presently have 96 students in my class. There are about 7 or 8 of these sections, each averaging about 95 students per class. Half of the Intro classes were assigned to see the show.
Horror Fest aimed to be gory, scary, and fun. During the course of the evening, one character had their face ripped off; one had their eyes gouged out; one had 6-inch screws power-drilled into his torso; a strange lizard women crawled through the audience. Audience members actually leaped, hid their faces, etc.
For the next couple of weeks, students approached various cast members, directors, and me saying stuff like "I never knew you could do that in the theatre!" That's just the point. Because commercial American theatre has allowed itself to fall into the trap of producing plays that have no more than 6 characters (or 6 actors), a unit-set, and a generally middle-America-friendly theme, it has become obsolete. It is as if American Theatre is singing its own eulogy, pretending to be dead when it is far from, and boring young audiences in the name of being non-offensive. Unfortunately, for many potential audience members, commerical theatre IS theatre, and Indie theatre remains on the, to wit, Fringe.
I believe Off-Off Broadway invites the kind of experimentation and revitalization of American drama that our theatre desperately needs. I've seen a number of productions OOBR over the years with troupes such as The Vampire Cowboys, The Rising Sun Performance Company (I am a member), and others that have renewed my faith in live performance. OOBR is also American Drama's best kept secret.
I just said that OOBR renews my faith in American theatre. While I'm certainly the choir being preached to by articles such as Butler's, I argue the reaffirmation of faith is just as important as attracted new members of the proverbial congregation of theatre.
And what about "new members?" How do we get the young audiences to OOBR theatre? Tell them about it. Like college football over professional football (pardon the sports metaphor; LSU is home of The Tigers), the stakes are so much higher, the passions run deeper, the successes are much greater, and the failures that much more beautiful. I, personally, would rather see a beautiful failure OOBR than a moderate success in any commercial theatre. Is it possible to get Young Audiences to feel this way, too? Absolutely. How? Just by getting them to our theatres by any means possible, Beer Pong included!
What's your opinion?
John Patrick Bray is a PhD Student of Theatre at Louisiana State University. He earned an MFA in Playwriting from the Actors Studio Drama School at New School University. His plays include Hound, Trickster at the Gate, Liner Notes, As We Speak, and the one-acts "Goodnight Lovin' Trail" and "Southern Werewolf." He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and son.