The Relevance of the Arts

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? 

The spring semester has just begun at the university where I teach, and once again I am faced with the issue of the relevance of my profession.  To my large roster of non-theatre arts majors, most of whom have signed up for a theatre arts class for that “easy A,” the arts in general, and theatre in particular, are not relevant to their lives.  In fact there was a significant percentage of students last week that agreed that “art should be free.”

This is a problem for all of us who create theater.  These students are for the most part not going to be artists themselves but our audience; they will be the doctors, engineers and business people who [we hope] will support the arts in the future.  But will this happen if they believe that art should be free?

It was a lively discussion in all of my classes this first week.  There were art supporters who recognized that artists had to live too, and deserved to be paid for their work; nearly every student had paid for pricey tickets to concerts to see their favorite artists.  Music seems to be the most accessible art, which is understandable in this age group.  Visual art, symphonies, opera, and theater are for the most part dismissed as irrelevant to their lives and unnecessary.

Okay, no surprise here.  Yet it bears repeating – how can we engage new audiences and create relevance to insure our individual and collective survival as artists? 


How to Engage and Attract New Audiences


 1. Use Video

My friend Ken Davenport has been advocating for video accessibility of theater to create audiences.  I’m with him. Bootleg videos of Broadway musicals serve the purpose of acquainting a younger audience with music and plots, and that familiarity can translate into ticket sales.  

To create an audience we must go where the audience is.  Our audience is online.  The danger is, of course, that the push to digitalize will come with a subscriber cost, thus creating another barrier.


2. Engagement and participation is all-important.  

Audiences want to be valued (significance in Maslow’s hierarchy).  This sometimes means immersive production elements (Sleep No More), but can be simple enough as providing information beforehand so that ticket buyers feel like an “insider” before they even arrive at the theater.

To create that sense of belonging and relevance we must not only surround our audiences where they live, we must also speak their language and show we have something important to say.  Diversity of expression, diversity of casting, diversity of theme – when our audiences relate with what happens on stage and believe we have captured the Truth and put it onstage, then we create that social platform of engagement of significance that our audiences will feel reflects their experience and, hopefully, want more.

Theater is collective and participatory.  It always has been a social platform to engaging ideas and getting them out there for public discourse.


3. Reconnect the audience with the message of relevance.  

Re-vision the classics or create new plays that present current Truths that look and sound like the audience you’re targeting. The classics can be exciting and relevant to this generation, and the discovery that connects classic literature with art can be a powerful tool for changing perspectives.


Now that’s exciting theater for today.

…the play ‘s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.