Poster for The Lorax, now playing at the Children's Theater (photo courtesy of Children's Theater)
Poster for The Lorax, now playing at the Children's Theater (photo courtesy of Children's Theater)
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How can theaters get younger audiences to fill their seats?

Minnesota is a treasure trove of funding for the arts in all fields, with programs like the Minnesota State Arts Board and Springboard for the Arts providing numerous opportunities for artists to apply for funding. Springboard for the Arts is currently running a program called On Stage: Creating a Community Audience Around Live Theater. The program is spearheaded by Lucas Erickson, who is currently working on his capstone paper for a master of arts at the University of Minnesota with a focus on theater audience development.

“On Stage brings actors to college classrooms and community settings around the Twin Cities. Local actors read scenes from a play in current local production followed by a lively discussion of the themes tying in current events, personal values and narratives, and stimulating critical thinking.”

 

The primary problem Lucas and On Stage is tackling is the lack of interest in theater in eighteen to thirty-five year olds. “We want to try to get a younger audience in to see theater, and show how theaters should try new creative ideas to get younger and non-traditional audiences to their theaters.” As we MCADians know, the Children’s Theater next door attracts a wide range of younger children, but it is a unique attraction that is hard to find elsewhere. Lucas shared some of his research concerning the primary demographic of theater goers with me: “I interviewed representatives from fifteen Twin Cities theaters last fall. Here’s what I heard: ‘Our audience demographic is old.‘ ‘We have an older audience.‘ ‘This doesn’t always feel like a place a young person would feel comfortable in.’” On Stage has a daunting and important task: to try to get young adults back into the seats at the theater.

Maria Asp (left), Lucas Erickson (middle), and Dario Tengelson (right)

 

Recently, Lucas and a team of actors, Maria Asp and Dario Tengelson, came to MCAD and held a workshop in the Entrepreneurial Studies course Human Factors. Taught by Arlene Birt this past semester, the concept of capturing the interest of seemingly uninterested theater audiences seemed to fit in perfectly with the wide range of human factors the class had been exploring.

Maria Asp is a program director and a teaching artist with the Children’s Theatre Company’s Neighborhood Bridges program, where she partners with classroom teachers to use storytelling and theatre to teach critical literacy to inner city public school students. As an actor, Maria has appeared in twenty-two productions with FRANK THEATRE as well as several independent films; she also plays and sings music.  

Dario Tangelson is a performer, educator, and director. He came to Minneapolis in 2008, and for the last ten years he has collaborated with Minneapolis artists (Interact, Wldrnss, Live Action Set, Mixed Blood, Guthrie, Sod House) and works in education for the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater. More recently he helped create the Expression Lab, offering performance techniques to scientists and researchers. 

The MCAD workshop began with theater exercises, basically some exercises that helped loosen everyone up and get them thinking and speaking their thoughts out loud. The exercises had an element of improv, thinking and acting on the spot, but the enthusiasm from Lucas, Maria, and Dario soon got everyone sharing stories and memories about the first time they heard a story. We also talked about things that were important to us or that we couldn’t live without (cellphones, cats, Netflix, and self-worth were mentioned), and then we jumped up and down a few times while shouting, which was fun.

On Stage leading students in one of the warm up exercises

 

Afterwards, the group pulled out the Lorax script from the show at the Children’s Theater, and proceeded to share with us a few scenes, starring Dario as the Once-ler, Maria as the Lorax, and Lucas as the narrator/donkey. Their performance was captivating; Dario was hilarious as the Once-ler and Maria had me thinking she would start pulling Truffala trees out of thin air. But the purpose of this show wasn’t just for fun, afterwards they started asking us questions about what we thought the Once-ler was doing with the trees, and why? What did the Lorax want, and why? These questions brought up more questions about environment, preservation both in nature and in sustaining one’s life, who was right and who was wrong? We had a good-natured debate with Dario, remaining in character as the Once-ler the entire time (and recruiting a couple talented students to his side), which ultimately showed us how tied theater can be in regards to issues and current events that mean so much to us nowadays.

We didn’t come up with any life-altering answers to the above questions, and probably could’ve spent hours more discussing every aspect of The Lorax, but the important thing was that we asked and thought about those questions. I think On Stage’s approach to the question of audience demographic is an effective one; I think visiting colleges and drawing students into the inner workings of the message of a theater performance displays how important, and interesting, the message can be. Theater can be an effective method of exploring questions that we have, either personally or as a society, and it isn’t something that’s just for little kids or our grandparents. 

As part of the targeted demographic, I used to see theater as an event or treat to seek out when there was some other overarching reason. Like a trip to New York City (Broadway!), or my grandmother is visiting and we need something fun to do, or seeing the Nutcracker Ballet every year is a Christmas tradition. It never appealed to me as a chosen form of entertainment in the same way as a movie or book. After speaking with Lucas and attending the workshop, it was inspiring to see the passion that he and Maria and Dario had for acting, as well as for the meaning in the stories they were acting out for us. While I haven’t become a theater nut overnight, I’ve definitely begun to reconsider my evaluation of theater and acting in general, and am looking forward to seeing The Lorax soon!