Thursday, February 11, 2016

Enticing young people into the theater: How Slipstream is doing it

One of many things many (if not most) producers are struggling with today is this: How do we get young people into our theaters? As traditional audiences disappear - whether because of age, infirmities, death, relocation or other reason - seats are not being filled in equal numbers by the next generation of patrons.

Why that's so has many theories:

  • The stories told by our theaters aren't of interest to a younger, more diverse audience;
  • Theaters are clinging to traditional modes of communication instead of embracing social media, which is where young people today get their information;
  • Young people in their 20s and 30s are busy with their lives - jobs, careers, marriage, children, etc. - and don't have time to attend theater; and
  • Tickets cost too much.

Each - or any combination thereof - is likely true, at least in part. But in my humble opinion, the problem is much deeper than any of them.

As I've said in prior posts, columns, interviews and personal discussions, the problem stretches back to the American educational system that - for the most part - no longer values the arts, particularly live theater. As such, children are not being exposed at an early age to the magic of this unique art form and the memories it creates. Therefore, they develop no taste for it, which further means they won't seek it out when they become adult consumers in charge of their own entertainment options.

It's been my experience that when you ask people ages 50 and above what drew them to either attend or work in the theater, most say it was their exposure to it while they were growing up. In my case, that's certainly true - and my story is similar to what countless others have told me.

Back when I was in grade school (we're talking about the early-to-mid 1960s here; yes, I'm a dinosaur), it was common for schools to take students on field trips to see plays that somehow tied into the curriculum. In Detroit, it was popular for teachers to take their students to the Detroit Institute of Arts or Greenfield Village for plays such as "Young Thomas Edison" or another on Abe Lincoln.

Later, as school budgets tightened, transportation became far too expensive and theaters stopped providing such opportunities, companies popped up to take shows into the schools. (I spent about 26 years in that business, from acting to producing to consulting.) But even that had its ups and downs, as budgets further tightened, show prices went up, and curriculum requirements left little time for "entertainment."

Even the opportunities to take kids to weekend performances disappeared, as parents and families changed their priorities, and fewer theaters, recreation centers and libraries offered family-friendly theater programs to their patrons.

In other words, young people have experienced the wonderment of live theater far less in recent decades than they used to in previous times. And that's having a serious impact on the industry.

Producers across the industry are struggling to respond, some more successfully than others. But so far, there's no magic formula that seems to work for everyone.

Meanwhile, longtime patrons continue to disappear. And the question remains: Who will producers get to replace them?

Into the mix comes Slipstream

Not every theater is struggling with an aging audience, of course. Improv and original comedies, for example, seem to attract a younger crowd. So do certain plays and musicals. ("Rent" - among the handful shows I avoid for various reasons - is especially popular.)

But one theater has particularly impressed me with its efforts to reach out to and draw in young audiences to its plays.

Ferndale-based Slipstream Theatre Initiative has a mission statement that clearly outlines its goal: to create original works and re-imagine classics for a current-minded audience. And since its launch in 2014, it has certainly accomplished what it set out to do.

It helps, of course, that the leadership of Slipstream is part of the generation they are trying to reach. But it's the brilliance of their work both on stage and behind the scenes that should have other producers sit up and take notice.

With an understanding that the attention span of its target market is short and their basic level of appreciation of classic works is likely small to non-existent, Slipstream will take a script by Shakespeare, for example, and strip it to its essentials. Gone, then, are various subplots and characters; what's left is tweaked and adjusted to help audiences comprehend the story. And then around the plot is wrapped an engaging concept designed to pull theatergoers into the action.

Add to that an aggressive campaign on social media, and what do you get? An intimate performance space that's more often than not filled with teenagers and young adults.

I observed that first hand last fall with Slipstream's 80-minute (or so) production of "Twelfth Night." There I was, likely the elder statesman in the audience. Next to me was likely the youngest, a young man around 16 years of age. Experiencing "Twelfth Night" with him was quite a treat, as his excitement was palpable and his enthusiasm was infectious. Like other young people around me, his focus on the action never wavered, and he bubbled with joy when the show was over.

So what made this particular production speak to its young audience? I suspect it was the judicious editing mixed with an innovative concept that was carried throughout the production by an energetic and youthful cast. Since the actors were having a blast, so too did the audience. (Read Martin F. Kohn's excellent review HERE.) And unlike some productions of Shakespeare I've seen foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, it was obvious everyone in the cast understood the meaning of their lines - which makes a major difference in whether or not an audience can follow the story.

Slipstream's approach works on other types of productions, as well. And depending on the subject matter, patrons may find themselves sitting among a wide range of theatergoers.

A prime example of this is its current production of "Hedda Gabler," also a trimmed down, 80-minute affair. With a unique approach to the title character, the production succeeds quite nicely thanks to a clear focus and tight execution by its actors and director. And who was sitting in the audience with me at this production? An interesting mix, I must say: primarily women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, several of whom were mothers with their daughters. (Since my thoughts about "Hedda" are in total agreement with critic Jenn McKee who reviewed it for, I won't say more about it - you can read her superb review HERE - but I strongly recommend it to those who love innovative interpretations of classic theater.)

Even a modern-day coming-of-age story can get the Slipstream treatment. In "BFs!" by critic Frank Anthony Polito, two teenage boys discover their sexuality in the 1980s - and guess what? Director (and co-founding artistic director) Bailey Boudreau hired two age-appropriate actors to play the roles, and then he allowed them the intimacy in which to present their story. My surprise on the night I attended? That the audience was a mix of gay and straight couples, young and not-so-young, and a 30-something couple who walked in not knowing a thing about the subject matter, but showed up because they'd heard such good things about the company. Based upon their reactions, I suspect they'll be back. (Here's what I wrote about the show last September.)

So what's the lesson?

While what works for one theater may not work for another - and there's a host of reasons why that is - Slipstream Theatre Initiative has excelled at developing shows that appeal to young people, and their efforts to reach them via social media have been quite successful. That their appeal also reaches into a much broader demographic of theatergoer is an added bonus, which gives them a solid customer base upon which to build a strong and long-term existence.

But times and tastes change. So the questions becomes these: Is Boudreau and his team nimble enough to respond to the ever-morphing fickleness of the marketplace? Will their quality remain high? Will they eventually run out of unique ideas upon which to build their shows?

The fact that Boudreau and company are willing to experiment and take risks - and are small enough to do so without jeopardizing vast sums of investment dollars - is refreshing. And that they've been rewarded with both glowing reviews and their desired customer base are signs Slipstream is on the right path.

Throughout my 40-plus years in and around the industry, I've seen the formation of many a new theater company that showed great promise. Some quickly failed and disappeared, while others took root and prospered. We're currently in an era in which several exciting new companies have appeared, all with different goals and philosophies. Several seem to have what it takes to run the long race.

With insightful planning, judicious budgeting and carefully managed growth, I suspect Slipstream Theatre Initiative will be among them.

The bottom line: There are only three performances of "Hedda Gabler" left. Click HERE for complete schedule information.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece, Mr. Calamia. You are absolutely correct in that dwindling interest in live theatre is a complex problem with myriad causes and hopefully just as many potential solutions. Slipstream looks to be a viable means of getting youth involved with theatre arts at both ends (audiences and on stage).

    Here in Traverse City there are several groups spearheading the effort to make live theatre more appealing to young audiences and participants. Our community theatre, the Old Town Playhouse, features a youth wing known as The Young Company (for the 18-and-under demographic) that produces several plays each year and provides summer camps for children as young as five years of age; as well as after-school classes to give kids from-the-ground-up exposure to acting and technical knowledge .

    Michigan State University and the Wharton Center, which operate the Traverse City Opera House venue, sponsor a Young Playwrights' Festival each Spring in which high school writers have an opportunity to see their works produced on stage .

    A five-year-old professional theatre company, Parallel 45 (), composed largely of 30-something former graduates of the Interlochen Center for the Arts theatre program who have gone on to professional theatre careers around the world, features not only the classics - but revised versions of the classics - that are not hackneyed attempts at dumbing down works such as Shakespeare's - but are instead creative spin-offs that look at classic plots from an entirely unique and modern perspective.

    It seems that all of these programs are doing well in Traverse City. Plus, it doesn't hurt that all three of our local high schools (Interlochen notwithstanding) have theatre departments that are alive and kicking. Now, if we can just get a handle on ticket prices, or at least provide young people with significant discounts, maybe we can begin to put more, as they say in our community theatre board meetings, "butts in the seats."

    Mike Nunn
    Traverse City, Michigan

    Note: I typed in links to all three of the organizations mentioned above which did not appear in the "preview" edit page. If these are blocked for some reason, all three links are easily found via search engine.