American Theatre, Young Americans, and “National” Theatre Identity

American Theatre, Young Americans, and “National” Theatre Identity

Elizabeth Vincentelli, theatre critic for the New York Post, has also joined in the discussion that Isaac Butler’s got going at the Parabasis blog.  In her post, “The Young and the Restless,” she addresses the oft-heard concern about how to get more (pre-)pubescent patriots to go see plays.  While she acknowledges that high ticket costs can be a deterrent, she suggests the greater problem lies with theatre’s absence from daily discourse which stems from the state of arts education.

Here’s the core of her point: “A fundamental problem is that theater isn’t part of the everyday discourse in the US. It’s not part of people’s daily lives. It’s not something people do and it’s not something people talk about with their friends (with clear exceptions in major cities, of course). Theater is never broadcast on TV, which makes its specific language alien to most. For the vast majority of Americans, going to the theater is an occasion, a “special event.” To change this, you have to educate audiences, and start them young. You essential have to radically change arts education in America, which is a much thornier endeavor than better programming..”

I agree with Vincentelli, but I, unfortunately, don’t know enough about arts education for the under 18 demographic to comment on the existing system, let alone how it might be improved.  Time for more research.

I do know that when I was in grad school in Ireland, I was blown away by how strongly theatre figures in the lives of the old and the young. Granted Ireland is a smaller country with fewer people, but geography and population size alone don’t explain why theatre there does manage, comparatively, to draw pretty robust, young audiences.  When I was there, new national initiatives had been implemented to foster and promote children’s and youth theatre in the Republic.  The Ark in Dublin is just one beaming example of these efforts; at the time of its opening in 1995, “it was Europe’s first custom-designed cultural centre devoted exclusively to innovative arts programming for, by, with, and about children.”  This is not to say that we don’t have many fine children’s theatres/companies here in the U.S.  The Actors’ Playhouse Theatre for Young Audiences Program at the Miracle Theatre in Miami is just one fine example. But there is clearly a disconnect somewhere.  I wonder which, if any, foreign models the powers that be within our own country have used to develop the infrastructure of arts education in our nation. Again, time for me to do some research.

Speaking of national initiatives, the whole notion of a “national” theatre is something else I find interesting and relevant to a discussion of both arts education and theatre attendance in the United States.  Because we do have one of sorts, even if only in name: The National Theatre in Washington, DC, which opened in December 1835. (Just this past June, a chronology of plays produced there from the theatre’s inception to the present was posted online. It makes for an interesting perusal.) And yet, somehow I doubt there are many children or youth out there thinking to themselves, “Gosh, I sure hope I have the opportunity to see a show at The National Theatre someday.”  I suspect this scenario plays out differently in Ireland where the Abbey Theatre–the national theatre of Ireland–is a treasured institution in more than just name.  Now, I recognize that politics, particularly British imperialism and colonialism, played significant parts in attempts by Irish artists, such as Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats, who founded the Abbey in 1903, to create Irish art and foster Irish heritage, unfettered by Britain’s oppressive influence.

Bottom line is this: American adults, much less youth, just do not have the same awareness of/pride in/knowledge of American theatre as the Irish do of their native drama. The question remains, why? Is it because of (lack of) arts education? Is it because American diversity complicates/conflicts with the idea of a “national” theatre, which can have a narrow or insular connotation?  While there are theatres in the U.S. that do “American theatre,” beyond those, how do other theatre practitioners feel about not just an American canon, but a national theatre? Is one necessary? meaningful?  And then again, maybe I’ve just gotten off on a tangent here, and the issue is that theatre practitioners don’t care what young people go see as long as they go see something.  Nonetheless, I do wonder if arts educators and theatre programmers increased efforts to instill in young people an appreciation for and pride in American drama, if we would see a return in the way of more young theatre goers.

P.S. There are 6 days left to take “the best American playwright” quiz on the BackStage Babble blog.

2 Responses to “American Theatre, Young Americans, and “National” Theatre Identity”
  1. CL Jahn says:

    Working in south Florida theatre since 1985, I eventually got used to the idea that theatre patrons were all senior citizens.
    So it was a shock to me to see how young the audiences are at Actors’ Playhouse. They still have a significant chunk of seniors, but they do not have the overwhelming majority you see in so many theatres here.
    The secret? Actors’ Playhouse has a Theatre for Young Audiences program that has been bringing kids in to see theatre every month for the last 20 years. Kid are introduced to the concept of “going to theatre for fun.” Contrast that to Florida Stage, which takes theatre to the schools. Kids don’t learn to GO to theatre, and Florida Stage has a much older demographic as a result.

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  1. […] into theatre seats was discussed by Isaac at Parabasis, Elisabeth Vincentelli at the NY Post, and by me here.  Investing in the youngest of audiences in the way of children’s theatre programming seems […]

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