Updated: Jan 26, 2020
Imagine with me, if you will, you're a first time theatre-goer. You have been dragged here by
your eccentric friend that thinks dressing up and going to the theatre will be a fun change of a pace for you Friday night. You would rather be at home watching Netflix and eating Taco Bell out of a paper bag. Your friend did not tell you how classy she was dressing and while she is sporting a velvet jumpsuit, you are in jeans and a t-shirt and want to melt into a wall. You walk into the theatre and are immediately surrounded by people who are at least 20 years older than you. You don't know how to act. You're scared you're going to say something wrong. You go to the bar and get an outrageously expensive drink to calm your nerves and are caught in a throng of people discussing the playwright and her previous works. You know nothing about the playwright. They then move onto discussing the subject of the play, which is some obscure historical figure that you never learned about in school. This is a disaster. Your friend is the kind of person that can fake her way through conversations about topics she knows nothing about, but not you, you have the anxiety sweats and are feeling more isolated and under-educated than you ever have. You are handed a program as you walk into the theatre and pray that it has some kind of information you can use to not look stupid, but it's so clogged up with bios, sponsor ads and donation asks, you can't seem to locate anything useful. The lights go dim and by this time you've already check out and are just waiting to get home to your Netflix and your Taco Bell.
This is a regular story that happens at a theatre near you every single day. It doesn't happen because people aren't educated or cultured enough. It doesn't happen because people are lazy. It happens because the theatre fails them.
The theatre has a fear of the future. Why wouldn't it? The future holds even more streaming services and entertainment mediums that the theatre will inevitably have to compete with. Because its so afraid of the future, it is ostracizing the next generation of theatre-goers. We provide assisted listening systems and large-print programs for the elderly, but we refuse to make theatre accessible for a generation that is not yet educated or connected to the theatre community.
While bringing young people into the theatre community is a complex issue, there is one solution that seems to be gaining traction: digital engagement. It comes in many forms, but I will give a few examples. One of the amazing things I get to do at American Stage as their arts administration apprentice is create a dramaturgical touchscreen presentation for each show. These touch screen presentations allow audience members to learn about the background and themes of the show before they ever enter the actual theatre and it sets them up to feel more educated and prepared to interact with the show and other audience members (plus, it's just fun). Many theatre companies are now making show programs fully accessible on your phone, so you can read it before you come to the performance and navigating it is much easier than thumbing through the 40-page booklet you're usually handed. More extravagant ideas like creating full show-themed games and apps you can interact with on your phone before and even sometimes during the performance are starting to find their way into houses across the country.
I believe digital engagement is a simple and practical step forward in building the next generation of theatre audiences and making them feel welcome and accepted.
Check out some of my digital touchscreen designs here: