I recently read Michael Kaiser’s Huffington Post article “The Millennials Project,” in which he claims that those of us under 30 are culturally illiterate and in need of some remedial training in “high art” (or, more specifically, what he defines as high art).
First off, I don’t consider myself a Millennial. I’m 29, and I often feel like those of us born in the late 70s and early 80s are in sort of a subgenerational gap. But that is a topic for a whole other blog post. I am, however, still “under 30” and take offense to several of Kaiser’s key points.
He begins by saying that “we in the arts face a major problem” about young people who have little to no exposure to theatre. “We”? Apparently “we in the arts” doesn’t include young people, and all the amazingly talented up-and-coming theatre artists I know and went to school with just don’t exist. He claims that young people have no interest in seeing “our” performances or visiting “our” art galleries—and maybe that’s a major part of the problem. He views theatrical performances, indeed any “higher art,” as an “ours,” as belonging to a select group of individuals privileged enough to be “in the arts.” The original point of regional theatre was that it was just that—theatre for the region, for and belonging to the community. It would speak to and address issues that were important to its community. Theatre is not just for the select few who know who Verdi is, yet Kaiser seems intent on creating a divide between the makers of theatre and its audience. And he feels that it must be the audience’s problem for not appreciating the theatrical gift he is bestowing upon them. He never considers that maybe the problem, or at least part of it, is with the theatre itself.
Young people are not “theatrically challenged” by any means. Kaiser should know this—he’s the President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I was lucky enough to participate in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival for Region 1 earlier this year, and I can’t tell you how much great work I saw being produced by talented undergrads with a passion for theatre. What most often keeps me from going to more theatre is that I just can’t afford it. I’m almost 30, I have a degree and a job, but I still can’t afford most ticket prices. I, like many others my age and younger, am swimming in education debt. Even for me, someone who really values theatre and should be trying to see as much as possible, going to the theatre still feels like a “special occasion” that I need to save up for.
Cost, however, isn’t something that affects just young people. I’d like to see statistics on how many people in an audience on any given night aren’t educated middle-class citizens. I grew up in Somerville, back when it was known for being a small city of mainly blue-collar families. I have three younger brothers, so even family trips to the movies were a luxury. Needless to say, we never made trips to the theatre. Something I’d love to see change is for theatre to no longer feel out of reach to any members of society—low-income families/individuals, young people, minorities, or anyone else who feels like theatre is part of another world that doesn’t include them. For Kaiser to miss this aspect of the issue and instead just focus on how YouTube must be stealing his audience is taking away a chance to start a discussion on how to bring the theatre back to being a vital part of the community.
The real problem to me lies in the structure of the theatre and the type of theatre being produced that this structure ultimately leads to. The system of donors and subscribers that most theatres survive on means that the shows being selected for production will cater to the select few who can afford to be donors and subscribers. Kaiser asks, “Will [the young people] be there for us when we need them?”, i.e., when they are wealthy and established enough to donate to the theatre. But why isn’t it the theatre that should be there for them, offering programming that feels important to them? I and many other emerging playwrights know all too well how difficult it is to get a new play produced in a climate where taking risks on unproven or nontraditional work can spell financial disaster for a theatre. But without vital new projects from new voices, how can Kaiser expect younger people to see theatre as a living, breathing thing that speaks to them? The same can be said for any group that is underrepresented in theatre audiences. They don’t need “targeted marketing”—a Twitter feed or Facebook page about a play is not going to do much to draw new people to the theatre if the stories being told (and the prices being charged) feel exclusionary towards them.
The best thing about Kaiser’s article is that I believe it serves as a starting point for discussion on where theatre is today and where it is going. And I know plenty of young, talented theatre artists who will be playing an important role in that discussion, whether or not Kaiser thinks we exist.