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Young at Heart 

Future: Last chance for our theater

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006

A light rain falls on the streets of Poznan, Poland, where a long line of people wait patiently behind a steel fence, hoping to buy a theater ticket, to cross that fence where a troupe named Travel Agency is about to perform an outdoor stage production of Macbeth that will include motorcycles, 10-foot puppets and a nightly ritual in which the set burns almost to the ground. The ushers look for spots where hopefuls might be able to squeeze in and see the action. Some perch in trees. Only those in the front get to sit — cross-legged on the ground, or on blankets. Behind them, about 300 audience members huddle on their feet 20 rows deep. The most striking characteristic of the crowd is that there’s hardly anyone over 30 in it; they are hot to see live theater the way people in their 20s in L.A. line up outside Hollywood clubs to see a rock or hip-hop show. And it’s not just this production. A simple one-man performance packs in 150 20-somethings on the other side of town night after night. From Kraków and Lublin to Szczecin, the Polish theater is so dominated by youth, people over 40 have stopped going.

Here in Los Angeles, it’s another story. For at least the past 10 years, our regional theaters and even our more established smaller theaters have been experiencing a slow-moving panic from the graying of their audiences (see accompanying article by Steven Mikulan), causing many in theater to wonder about the future of the form.

How is it that the arts in general, and theater in particular, are so hip with the young in Poland? And what have we been doing so wrong here?

click to flip through (2) The mirror has two faces; Steve Coombs. (Photo by Drew Reynolds)
  • The mirror has two faces; Steve Coombs. (Photo by Drew Reynolds)

Dr. Juliusz Tuszka (professor of cultural studies at Poznan’s Adam Mickiewicz University) points out many reasons for the cult of youth in Polish theater, including long-standing traditions of political oppression and censorship that fueled underground arts movements. But the primary factor, he says, is education. The arts are pounded into Polish students throughout their studies. That education, he says, is frequently doctrinaire and incompetent, inspiring youngsters to rebel against their professors rather than emulate them. But in that rebellion, they don’t necessarily abandon the theater. They form companies of their own.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise, even here. A 1992 survey (“Effects of Arts Education on Participation in the Arts”), conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, concludes: “Those with the most arts education were also the highest consumers and creators of various forms of visual art, music, drama, dance, or literature.”

Nonetheless, such thinking, while gaining ground, is still swimming upstream against several decades of educational theory. In the mid-’70s, a concern about the drop in math and science skills led to a “back to basics” mentality in our schools that pushed the arts to the back burner, a mentality that still holds a strong grip. The New York Times reported on March 26 that in order to get children to pass federally mandated “No Child Left Behind” tests, thousands of schools across America are now eliminating all subjects except math and reading for underachieving children. That kind of thinking is almost criminally shortsighted, as it’s been proved in study after study that arts education has direct benefits for both literacy and building arts audiences of the future.

We were doing quite well with arts in our schools during the ’40s and ’50s. About 10 years later, a new network of national, regional theaters saw serious-minded young adults walking through their doors, bearing out the relationship between school arts programs and subsequent theater attendance. About a generation after the arts were slowly shoved out of public-school systems, our theaters started noticing that their audiences were aging, with no younger replacements in sight.

A 2004 study by the Wallace Foundation for the RAND Corporation (“Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts”) concludes: “Research has shown that early exposure is often key to developing life-long involvement in the arts. The most promising way to develop audiences for the arts would be to provide well-designed programs in the nation’s schools.”

On a Wednesday morning in February, 100 fifth-graders from Robert Hill Elementary School sit cross-legged in the lobby of the 24th Street Theater — a storefront venue on Hoover near USC. The kids have been bused in from their Monterey Park school as part of a service contract between the theater and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The theater’s artistic director, Debbie Devine, speaks out in a husky voice and brassy style about what happens in a theater lobby: “This is where people gather before a show.”

On cue, actress Sarah Zinsser pokes her head out of the box-office window and sings one verse of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” until Devine cuts her off: “No, no, no, Sarah. You work in the box office; this is where you give people their tickets. The show happens on the stage, and you’re not in the show.”

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