Onstage: Keeping theater alive

D'Youville students attended Time Stands Still at the Kavinoky.

Theater isn’t dead. There are enough Broadway successes—successes that transfer very well to Shea’s and other local theaters—to prove that an audience still exists for live

entertainment. But what is also true is that musicals attract more of that audience than straight plays, and—as with most arts—the demographic skews mostly older. These are people who came of age with the arts when there was no such thing as electronics, and attention spans still lasted well beyond ninety minutes. In order for theater to survive, then, we need to cultivate a new generation of theatergoers, young people who appreciate the medium for what it is and don’t view it as a lesser, more expensive alternative to a blockbuster movie.

In Spree’s theater issue two years ago, local artistic directors had myriad ideas for doing just that. Alleyway’s Neal Radice suggested identifying children who have been to Theater of Youth and nurturing them into adult theatergoers, while Irish Classical’s Vincent O’Neill was—at the time—collaborating with Torn Space to offer more youth-oriented fare. And Kavinoky’s David Lamb was emphatic when he said that it would take education to cultivate young audience members.

"That’s the only way you’ll get them to go, when high school teachers feel free enough to teach theater and take trips to the theater and get high school kids in volume to theater," posited Lamb. "That’s where our future audiences are going to come from. By going, they learn the conventions of theater, how to respond as a group, to be willing to laugh or cry with other people."

Though high school groups remain a hope for the future, several Western New York college professors have introduced mandatory theater attendance to their classrooms with positive and edifying results. While this might seem like a no-brainer, its practice is not widespread because drama is traditionally taught in English class, as literature. "A production component is mentioned, but it’s not a priority," says Canisius College professor of English Dr. E. Roger Stephenson. "[Approaching plays] as literature is a mistake; you shouldn’t be reading plays at all. In 1605, on the north side of the Thames, you’d say, ‘I’m going to ‘hear’ a play.’"

"Educating students about theater is crucial for building audiences—most students tell me they’ve never been to a play," agrees Dr. Lizzie Finnegan, assistant professor of English at D’Youville College. In her first year at D’Youville, Finnegan took her students to last season’s Time Stands Still at Kavinoky.

"What I explain is that the book in front of them is not the play; it’s the script for the play. I try to get them to understand that the actors and director have to essentially do the work that the narrator does in fiction—since there’s no narrator to tell the audience about a character’s inner thoughts or feelings, or to tell us how a line of dialogue is said, all of this has to be rendered in the performance, with gesture, line delivery, affect, etc. There was no way I could get that magic across to the students without giving them the real experience. I wasn’t expecting theater mavens to spring full-grown from their heads after seeing one play, but I did hope that the imaginative power of the experience would take root."

That logic also prompted Stephenson to, this year, for the first time, require his American Drama students to see two live performances—off campus. "You have to tread lightly when you demand extracurricular activities, and make it doable by giving them options," says Stephenson. "Some went to Shea’s, some went to Lancaster Opera House, and many came with me to Road Less Traveled to see 2012: End of the Road." Finnegan, too, took her students en masse to a weekend matinee.

And they liked it. "They’re not used to live performance, so they were sort of uneasy to start with, but they settled into it," Stephenson says. "A lot of that had to do with the fact that it was contemporary. They liked that it wasn’t stuffy and was laid back and youngish. And because of the course, they had some language to use to evaluate what was happening, and we had an interesting discussion in class."

Finnegan, too, found that the live theater experience animated her students, who took notes and chatted excitedly during intermission about the ways that the actors’ interpretations affected what they were seeing and feeling about the characters (one student even admitted to forgetting about her cell phone!). "They had noticed a wide variety of things, from the performances to the lighting to the blocking," Finnegan says. They all agreed that seeing the play made an enormous difference in terms of their appreciation and enjoyment of it, and our discussion of the characters and their conflicts became more nuanced and complex than our discussion pre-performance."

For students of the IMAX generation, it’s hard not to make comparisons but, fortunately, the communal and educated introduction ensured they were favorable. "You can have all the 3-D in the world, but what nobody can do is make it real," notes Stephenson. "There’s always a proscenium effect, and even if they don’t know what that is, it’s there, which gives theater an appeal most other things don’t have. I think that’s why flash mobs are so popular, because it’s a kind of reality; the communal experience of that is real."

Honing in on that reality to the exclusion of everything else also created a new experience for students who are so used to multi-tasking across several platforms that they find it a challenge to disconnect and focus.  "Some of them found that kind of liberating," Finnegan says. "And several students commented that they really noticed the acting so much more than they do on film, especially because so many films are rife with special effects, music, etc. Since their assignment required them to comment on the sets, costumes, and general production design, they found themselves noticing those elements and appreciating the way a single space can evoke a realistic world. This is like magic—really, it is magic. You never recover from that magic if you start young enough."

Obviously, the younger the better, which is why Young Audiences of Western New York (YAWNY)—which, in its fiftieth year, serves eight counties and more than 60,000 students—seeks to eliminate all obstacles to getting students to theater by bringing theater to students. In addition to bringing artists and creative work into schools, YAWNY offers free programs at the Central Library, Albright Knox, and canalside. In 2012, YAWNY held its first summer program, which included a field trip to Shea’s and a monologue workshop with actor and teaching artist Melissa Kate.

Exposure to live theater is a strong beginning," says YAWNY Education Associate Annette Daniels-Taylor. "I like to think that we not only expose theater to young people but also help to develop their theater eyes, ears, and minds so that they can respond about what is being presented to them more critically than simply saying, ‘It was good, I liked it!’ We are planting seeds and if we continue to receive funding for these projects and programs, we can nurture further growth and continue to find out what our children need in order to keep falling in love with theater."

One obstacle to this goal is the general inability to expose children—especially those of middle- and high-school age—to theater during school hours. According to Daniels Taylor, only Theatre of Youth and Shea’s regularly offer school-time performances, most often for elementary students, "which is good for planting seeds, but if we are talking about continued interest, then we as a theater and academic community have to think and talk about how, when, and where else middle school and high school students can experience rewarding school-time theater. If they don’t have exposure to art, how can they know whether or not they love it? If you build it, they will come, but they have to know that it’s around the corner waiting with comfortable seats and good stories. If you give them what they want, they’ll come back for more, right?"

That’s the idea and there is at least some evidence that it’s working. "I have had a few students stop me in the hallways to tell me that they did go to another play," Finnegan reports. "One of them even wrote a review for the school paper and left me a copy in my mailbox with a note thanking me for introducing her to theater. That was the best piece of mail I’ve gotten in a long time!"

Donna Hoke has more than occasionally filled her van with high school students and taken them to the theater. She plans to do so with one student Thursday this month at Road Less Traveled Theatre, where her play, Seeds, is currently onstage.

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