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Playing to Tumbleweeds and Grasshoppers in 2043?

The way things are today, I’m not really sure what our theatre audience will look like in 20 years. Small is the only word that comes to mind.

Tumbleweeds-1024x711Netflix or the Theatre?
By Colette Nichol

My normal friends do not talk about the theatre.  They are intelligent, culturally and politically aware, have disposable incomes, and live in cities where there is access to the theatre.  They work in areas ranging from hospitality to finance to trades.  Most are university educated.  All are intelligent.  They are all under thirty-five, and almost none of them have kids – thus the disposable incomes. They spend their extra cash on eating out, drinking, taking trips, fashion, and new technology.  Most of them have smart phones.  All of them have laptops.  Basically, they are the perfect targets for a luxury entertainment experience such as the theatre, and yet almost none of them go to the theatre, which is of course the reason why they don’t talk about the theatre either.

Sure, sure, they go the odd time.  Maybe once a year with a friend or their mother, as a special event or because they know somebody who knows somebody in a play.  See they aren’t theatre-goers.  They don’t itch to be sitting front row centre of a theatre watching a story unfold live right before their eyes, which is not because they aren’t interested in stories.  They are.  They want to be challenged and engaged by a story.  Sometimes they want escape, and other times they want to learn something new about humanity, the world, themselves.  But theatre doesn’t even enter their mind when it comes to compelling and potentially challenging entertainment.  Instead they are addicted to the latest TV show on Netflix.  They tell everyone they know to watch said show, so they can then have people with whom to discuss it.   I can have impassioned discussions with certain friends about the merits of Downton Abbey or House of Cards, but if I were to ask those same friends about their opinion of Bard on the Beach, they would look at me blankly or confusedly and change the subject.

My point is that those of us in our twenties and thirties who love the theatre, go often and will passionately discuss it are an anomaly.  So who are we young theatre-makers making theatre for?  Are we predominantly making theatre for people thirty years older than us?  All signs point towards yes.  A blunt question: what happens when they’re all dead?  Not to be a goul, but by the time we twenty-somethings are fifty, most of the over-sixty audience members we’re playing to today will not be venturing out to the theatre on a regular basis.  And who will be taking their place?  Not my friends who are already addicted to House of Cards on Netflix.  Not my friends who won’t buy Netflix because they can download movies for free with bit torrent.   The way things are today, I’m not really sure what our theatre audience will look like in 20 years.  Small is the only word that comes to mind.

How About Some Blame

So whose fault is it that younger audiences are not being engaged by the theatre?  Part of the blame could go to the big subsidized theatres who, for the most part, cater to their existing audience, programming shows that most people under thirty would have to be paid to see rather than the other way around.  But then again, if the big subsidized theatres were to seek out younger audiences with their programming, they would dilute their brand, potentially alienating current  subscription audiences.  They might be wise to house more than one theatre company under the same invisible umbrella, thus doing what massive corporations have been for years: diversifying their portfolio.  If Estee Lauder can own 27 different brands, I see no reason why a theatre company can’t do the same thing.  But theatre companies, especially subsidized ones, don’t like to behave as though they were involved in the business of making money, which is another issue for another day.

The truth is that trying to place the blame for any large issue on one institute or group is kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack without seeing that the haystack is in fact made of needles.  So, and maybe this is just all-inclusive-blame diplomacy, I lean towards blaming everyone in the theatre community – including myself – for the lack of engagement of new and under-thirty audience members.  We theatre-makers have a tendency to forget about business and focus only on art.  We leave the business of marketing to the marketers, instead of empowering ourselves with the facts that will help our industry (profession, art, whatever you want to call it!) thrive.  We forget that without an audience we have no show.  And we perhaps don’t value our audience as much as we should.

No Audience = No The Show Does Not Go On

If we want the theatre to survive the ever expanding web of entertainment options, and in fact thrive, then we need to make our audience a priority and empower ourselves with the knowledge of new marketing techniques necessary to persuade new people to go to the theatre and become life-long audience members.  We need to cultivate a diverse theatre-going culture with well-defined companies that appeal to a well-defined audience.  And we need to become flexible and willing to change as the world around us changes.

The fact that I still see bus stop advertising for theatre (read a few books on new marketing and you’ll quickly learn that engaging an audience with billboards, posters, and any other kind of interruption advertising has a very high cost and a very low success rate – not the kind of ratio you want to be basing your marketing campaign around), yet only the rare theatre blog or YouTube channel, very little social media engagement from theatre companies, and a massive disregard for audience members in terms of monitoring customer satisfaction by providing various channels for honest feedback, indicates that theatre marketers are out of the loop.  And that means theatre-makers are out of the loop.  If the marketing people don’t even know what they’re doing when it comes to getting butts in seats, then the artists certainly don’t.

Solutions: Get Over the Old, Get Onto the New

So to break it down and end on a positive note, I’m going to outline what I think we theatre-makers need to be doing to persuade the twenty and thirty-somethings to be as interested in the theatre as they are in the latest viral YouTube video or indie band.  Okay maybe that’s asking too much, so let’s just say almost as interested in.

My two part answer goes as follows:

1) To steal and bastardize a phrase from marketing guru Seth Godin, we need to focus on making theatre that is remarkable, not on making theatre that is “perfect”.  We need to make theatre that is worth talking about and worth sharing.  And if we want to engage a younger audience, then our theatre has to be remarkable to this younger audience.  This means doing something that is new, modern, a reflection of the times. A friend of mine commented recently on a big theatre company’s large holding of restoration furniture and how the money spent on said furniture wasn’t going to make their shows more engaging.  And it’s true.  If we spend our money and place our focus on fancy restoration furniture rather than on being remarkable, and if we don’t make shows that specifically speak to an audience under thirty, well, it will be our own fault when we’re playing to grasshoppers and tumbleweeds in 2043.

2) When it comes to marketing theatre to a web-obsessed younger market, we must learn to play the new game of distribution and marketing that successful companies of today and tomorrow are playing, and not rely on the methods of yesteryear.  That means letting go of “interruption advertising” like postering the shit out our cities.  It doesn’t work anymore!  We’ve all trained ourselves to not pay attention to advertising.  And we aren’t going to go to the theatre because of an interview on CBC or a positive review in the paper.  What do we pay attention to?  We pay attention to our friends, to Facebook, to YouTube, to blogs, and to twitter.  If we are given something worth talking about, we’ll talk about it, tweet it, blog about it, and post links and comments on Facebook.  We are the generation of share, but only if we’re given something worth sharing. We need to turn our theatre projects into idea viruses that are easy to share and, more importantly, worth sharing.

Now, lets be honest, in the end, after making theatre that is more relevant to a younger generation of viewers, after utilizing and integrating new marketing and sharing techniques, we may still fail to create the vast change needed to keep the theatre alive and kicking.  It’s absolutely possible that going to the theatre might become an even more elite activity than it already is.  We might be playing to miniscule audiences in thirty-years time.  But at least we will be able to say that we did what we could to resuscitate an art form, an industry, a business, a glorious form of entertainment in which we believe.

Colette Nichol acts, writes, sings, and in general enjoys the process of creation.  After having spent four and a half years living in South America learning Spanish, teaching English, working on her first solo show, and in a happy surprise, falling in love and getting married, Nichol returned to Canada in 2012 and is currently producing her second solo show, Swimming with Piranhas. Visit her site at: www.colettenichol.com

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