When All Else Fails, Try Being Good

There’s been a lot in the media and blogosphere about how to keep the next generation of media-saturated, multi-tasking “digital natives” interested in attending live theatre.  As someone who has devoted a large portion of my adult life to teaching this generation of digital natives, I feel the need to throw in my two-cents.

While I absolutely agree with the scientific reports and articles that claim our brain mass is actually changing in response to all the multi-tasking we do, and that the upcoming generation is being conditioned to have shorter and shorter attention spans due to all the technology at their fingertips, I think we may be underestimating this generation.   As someone whose livelihood and sanity depends on engaging youth, theatre can be an incredibly powerful tool to engage and interest learners of all kinds, both as theatre artists themselves and as theatre audiences.

If theatre is good and engaging, audiences, even digital natives, will actively participate.  They will engage their hearts, minds, emotions, imaginations and go on the journey that only live theatre can take you on.  Now, right at this point, you are probably thinking, “Sure, privileged, cultured kids who have been exposed to theatre before, will.”  I’m not talking about privileged cultured kids; I’m talking about high school students from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in this city.

As a teaching artist for BAM, I have spent years going into schools to prep classes for their “theatre-going” experiences at BAM.  Usually, they are seeing shows that every theatre-lover in New York desperately wants a ticket to; Hedda Gabler with Cate Blanchett, or Macbeth with Patrick Stewart.  Ironically, they rarely know who this “famous” person is, and really don’t care.   In fact, they generally don’t care that they are even going to see a play.  Many of them have never seen one before and may never have the opportunity to see one again.

A few years ago, one of the performances I taught seventeen workshops for (yes, seventeen) was Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands.  If you know Matthew Bourne, you know that there are not going to be any words, just dance. (I don’t think there was a single classroom teacher I worked with that knew that before I came for their pre-visit workshop.)   Because it was a recognizable name, the tickets sold like wildfire for the student matinee.  Hence, the seventeen workshops I did.  These were some of the toughest students I have worked with in my teaching career…and that’s saying a lot.

It was with great trepidation that I entered the BAM opera house the day of the performance.  And I had reason to be fearful.  That opera house was ready to burst with all the teenage hormones and energy flying around in it.  It was completely out of control.  I had a pit in my stomach and feared what the next two hours might bring.  The lights dimmed and the students screamed with excitement (not for the show, just for the dark).  The performance started and little by little the noise died down.  After about five minutes into the performance, you could literally hear a pin drop in that opera house.  They were dead silent…and riveted.  And that engagement continued through the entire performance.  At the end, when the actor playing Edward came forward for his curtain call, the entire audience leapt to their feet and screamed as loud as they did when the lights initially dimmed. 

Now, I know this to sounds like some sappy movie-of-the-week.  And I’m sure there were a bunch of kids sleeping, texting, making out, etc.  But, the general feel in the room was one of great enthusiasm and engagement. 

And the same thing happened at the performance of Hedda Gabler with Cate Blanchett, at Peter Hall’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Propeller Theatre’s brilliant Merchant of Venice.  My all-time favorite theatre moment was when Patrick Stewart came out for the talk-back after Macbeth and told the students, in his regal voice, “Don’t applaud us—it is you we should be applauding.” He went on to explain to the students that they were the most exciting audience to perform for, that they helped the actors make new discoveries and find things in the text that they didn’t even know existed.

I guess what I am getting at with all this, is that is I’m not really sure the solution to getting more youth into the theatre is to over inundate them with stimuli and music and multi-media visuals, video games, or whatever modern devices playwrights might want to experiment with, unless those devices are the best way to engage us in particular story.  (For example, the UK-based, Theatre de Complicite , brilliantly melds technology with traditional theatre techniques in ways that allow them to perfectly theatricalize complex, multi-layered stories like Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes, and their current production of A Disappearing Number , playing now at Lincoln Center). 

I happen to believe that good stories can be told simply, straightforwardly and powerfully with the same devices that have been around for hundreds of years.  And rather than advanced digital technology, what the students that attended the BAM performances needed were two things:  Access to the theatre—a teacher who organized an affordable or free trip and got them to the theatre to have that new experience; and material that was done so well, and in such a relevant way, that the social constructs that divide us were broken down.

Fittingly, I stole my blog title from an excellent New York Magazine article about television—one of the first technological mediums that drastically drew people away from live theatre.  The article describes the “renaissance” that television seems to be going through now.  In the article, Michael Hirschorn explains, “Like almost any commercial product, it [television] lives somewhere on the axis between commerce and art.  And right now it’s more about art than commerce.”   

I hope that in the future, we can be saying that about live theatre.  Rather than desperately try to seek new and exciting ways to engage the digital natives, maybe, we should just focus on trying to be good.  It's worked pretty well for Mad Men.

If this debate about youth and technology interests you, check out author Neil Postman's books.  My personal favorite, Technopoly:  The Surrender of Culture to Technology, really explores this issue in depth.