Young People, Pizza, Popcorn & Theatre

It was two years ago that I sat in a meeting and listened to theatre colleagues discuss the challenges associated with developing teenage and young adult audiences. I don’t think there was any question among those present that it is of vital importance to invest in the next generation of audience members. The question of course, is how do we get them into theatres in the first place?

I think there is a lot that to be learnt from elsewhere. For example cinema, which is perhaps one of the closest cultural references, happily attracts the Holy Grail – young people independently accessing with their friends. This is, of course, fuelled to a large extent by the mass marketing and media machine but there is also something about ‘borrowing’ from that experience that could offer us up some clues. This is certainly one of the starting points that I used when thinking about how The Garage might try to build a teenage audience through the performance programme we now call ‘CurtainUp!’

It is important to point out that I don’t have any answers.  We have been experimenting for two years and I fully expect (and hope) that we will continue to experiment for as long as we are in the business of being a performing arts centre for, by and with young people. I don’t think we will find the secret blend of ingredients that will make theatre simply irresistible to those under 18 but we can keep questioning, listening and learning.   Following are some thoughts, musings and probable untruths but nonetheless, my response to the question of young people and theatre.

Your average multiplex offers a vast array of choice, different films, starting times and even dimensions (2D or 3D?). Theatre clearly cannot. It sounds obvious but we commit huge resources to bring in each presentation so if we want young people to come, we need to make sure that it is something they want to see, when they want to see it. We worked with 8 young people aged 14 – 17 to design a questionnaire and canvass 90 of their peers. The first thing they told us was that 7:30pm was too late for a weeknight presentation. If we wanted them to come along regularly they needed to arrange transport home so shows need to start earlier.  When populating the categories of types of show, ‘gritty’, ‘urban’ or ‘teen issues’ did not seem to feature in their thinking.  Romantic Comedy did however and astonishingly 47% of those consulted chose it as the genre of theatre they most enjoyed watching.  Who knew? Two years of presenting shows and not one was a romantic comedy!

If you work in theatre you might also have picked up a few conventions along the way. Now is maybe the time to step back and challenge these. Should we sell popcorn for example? Of course many theatres already do for children’s shows but how about for others? Large swathes of your existing audiences would, no doubt, be horrified at the thought but it opens up an interesting question. For many young people, popcorn (and a larger than life fizzy drink) is exactly what they might expect when spending an hour sat in rows in the dark watching a story unfold in front of them. Perhaps we cannot afford to dismiss too quickly some of the familiar creature comforts if we are asking them to trust us and try out an unfamiliar experience. What about a post show question and answer sessions?  We adults find these really interesting, perhaps so do the initiated performing arts student but what about everyone else? The young people we spoke with said it was way too formal for them. They would rather have a more informal chat with the actors in the café bar after the show. Maybe, it was suggested, it would be a good idea if the chat was accompanied by some tasty post show pizza!

Sometimes I think we just have to take a chance. For example, will young people really turn off their mobile phone? Unlikely so maybe let’s use that to our advantage? Providence Performing Arts Centre, USA first experimented with tweetseats in January 13. They made specially designated seats available to audiences to converse with each other and to their networks about the show during the performance.  Brilliant! Let’s get young people telling each other about theatre! By February we adopted the idea and The Garage, as far as I know, was one of the first UK venues to give it a go. Now of course, like popcorn, it will not be welcomed by everyone. Theatre should somehow be more pure but perhaps for the generation of audiences that we are talking about, they want their theatre with added extras. Some organisations across the pond actually tweet directors notes and comments during performances. Theatre complete with live commentary and deleted scenes, remind you of anything?

We always talk about how we want young people to access our venues independently. The chances are that they probably already do, but in the youth theatre or activities programmes. Does it matter if young people don’t independently turn up for a show? We organise each show as a trip. We send letters home provide pre or post show pizza (cost built into the ticket price) and one of the youth theatre leaders hosts each visit. They are gaining in popularity and over time, maybe the young people will come back on their own. If they don’t then relax, it’s probably ok. Isn’t it our job as trusted adults to help guide and support them to access new creative experiences anyway?

The ideas are all out there waiting to inspire us. Some will work, others won’t and just when you make headway the kids will grow up and the process will start over again. It’s a hard task, a challenge that keeps changing as the world that surrounds us changes. I, for one, am going to market the ‘ultimate 3D’ experience next and hand out black rimmed ‘3D’ specs to my young audiences. If I am lucky they may just think it’s the most advanced CGI ever. Or maybe, as is more likely, I will keep experimenting, giving things a go and you never know, one day I may stumble across that secret formula after all!

Darren Grice is Director at The Garage, Norwich, a lively cultural venue in Norwich and home to The Garage Trust, a charity providing opportunities and support for children and young people from all backgrounds.