Young at Heart

The mirror has two faces; Steve Coombs. (Photo by Drew Reynolds)

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?

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.”


Bewildered and slightly defeated, Zinsser shutters the box-office window and disappears, as the children laugh.

“And now the magic words that have been spoken for thousands of years,” Devine intones, like a circus ringleader: “Ladies and gentlemen, the house is now open.”

Devine asks for volunteers to try the announcement. A shy 11-year-old named Isabelle rises, stands next to Devine and, in a quavering, barely audible voice, says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the house is now open.”


“Can anyone say it in Spanish?” Devine asks. A diminutive boy named Pedro stands next to her, puffs out his chest like a rooster, and, in a piping voice that could probably be heard all the way up to the Santa Monica Freeway, bellows: “Señoras y señores, la casa está abierta!

A hundred children scramble to their feet and, through two narrow corridors on either side of the lobby, they file into a theater — most of them for the first time in their lives.

On a screen over the stage, the children watch a film clip of a tightrope walker balancing on a slip of rope, inching forward step by precarious step, while hungry lions pace below. After the acrobat makes it safely to a crow’s-nest, the house lights come up, and the theater’s executive director, Jay McAdams, leaps to the stage and asks the kids how this movie scene could be enacted as a theater scene. “First, we need some lions,” McAdams suggests. “Are there any volunteers?”

Hands shoot up, and McAdams starts casting ?the scene.

Playwright/choreographer Tina Kronis holds a balancing bar as she gingerly tiptoes along a piece of rope placed on the floor. Stage right, Brenda Varda provides melodramatic keyboard accompaniment while, stage left, a pack of lions — played by the kids — claws the air and growls. Trepidation yields to triumph as Kronis pivots onto the safety of an imaginary crow’s-nest in some imaginary sky. The audience of 11-year-olds cheers. This program, the Arts Education Plan, is part of a significant and fairly recent upswing in the role of arts in schools that is spearheaded by forward-thinking school districts, and it could be instrumental in providing new generations of theater audiences, even though its primary purpose is to improve reading skills. It was largely inspired by a 2000 study put out by the Reviewing Education and the Arts Project (REAP) that proves a causal relationship between drama in the classroom and verbal skills. Rich Burrows, director of arts education for LAUSD, says that the REAP report is one of the first of its kind that stands up to scrutiny.

Burrows was hired from outside the district to implement a 10-year strategic arts plan for L.A.’s public schools that consists of field trips to arts providers (such as the 24th Street Theater), classes in the arts and a training program that brings arts teachers up to state-mandated standards.

“It’s such a successful program because the teachers see the results in the reading, the fluency,” says Robin Lithgow, who was one of the original core of 54 teachers brought in to train other teachers in the arts. (That core has swollen to 318 teachers working in 48 teams.) The program has also proved beneficial to special-needs kids.

“Autistic children start speaking because there’s a need and a desire and a passion to do it,” Lithgow adds, “and the teachers see it happening, they just catch fire.”

LAUSD has been steadily adding fuel to that fire, increasing the budget from $6.7 million, when the Arts Education Plan started in 2000, to the current funding of $33.4 million in supplementary funds. Of the 742,000 students currently enrolled in the LAUSD, 200,000 elementary-level students now receive direct instruction in and exposure to music, theater, dance and the visual arts. With 35 contracted performances for this school year alone, 3,500 children will have seen the 24th Street Theater’s presentation by June, and that’s just one of 50 providers.

Furthermore, working in consultation with Burrows, the L.A. County Arts Commission is now in the third year of its own 10-year strategic plan (the Arts for All Initiative) with an investment of almost $1 million to provide advocacy support and technical resources for the county’s 82 school districts, serving 1.7 million students — a plan which, in the words of the county’s Arts Education director, Ayana Higgins, aims “to create systemic change, to restore art, visual arts and theater throughout the county’s schools.”

Also following the lead of Burrows and the LAUSD, which was among the first to institute such an ambitious arts program, the Chicago Public School System is now in the process of hiring an administrator to implement its own 10-year strategic plan for arts in education, while New York City has just published its own blueprint, which is the preliminary phase for a similar program.


While the schools are starting to rediscover the benefits of the arts, the culture is moving in precisely the opposite direction. Public and private arts funding continues to be redirected by local government to emergency services that the state and federal government have stopped subsidizing. These two opposing trends, and the way they conjoin, will largely determine what our theater will look like in the next 20 years, and who’s going to be attending.

In the short term, we’re clearly going to see a deepening of the rift between the ambitions of our midsize theaters and those of our smaller venues. In order to survive, Center Theater Group, the Geffen, and the Brentwood theaters will engage in less experimentation and more star vehicles. (Alfred Molina and Annette Bening sold out an entire run of The Cherry Orchard at the Mark Taper Forum, Len Cariou is preparing to open in All My Sons at the Geffen, while Al Pacino’s slated to reprise his role as King Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the Brentwood later this month.)

Also, in order to survive, our smaller theaters will share more resources and theater spaces, and become more assertively involved with the communities in which they reside. Our theaters are going to need the help of these communities in wooing potential, distracted audiences from their iPods, BlackBerries and cell phones and into their venues. Much of this will be accomplished by the forging of relationships with teens, providing in the theaters a home away from home, a secondary family, which is how theater has always passed the torch from generation to generation. This usually happens in the smaller, alternative venues, where a young artist stands a chance of getting some attention.

There’s good reason to believe that in another 20 years, plans like Arts in Education will have helped foment a new generation of theatergoers. After 50 years of arts being taught in the schools, perhaps the culture here, as in Poland, will appreciate their intrinsic as well as their educational value. Somebody might even reinstate the radical idea of public funding for the arts. Stranger things have happened.

Walking toward a school bus parked outside the 24th Street Theater, a fifth-grade boy turns to Jay McAdams and says, in all seriousness, “One day, I’m going to bring my son to your theater.” The child takes a few more steps toward the bus and then turns back once more: “Of course, if you’re still alive.”

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