Speaking Youth to Power: The Next Theater Generation


The kids are all right: (from left) Viviani Valadez of Steppenwolf for Young Adults shares a sofa with Taylor Greenthal and Oscar Peña of Berkeley Rep Theatre's Teen Council

Hallie Gordon, a Chicago theater professional who helped found and now oversees Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s program promoting theater among youth, delivered what might become the most urgent message to emerge from Theatre Communication Group‘s 50th annual conference, which ended Saturday, June 18, in Los Angeles.

“We hear a lot of talk about attracting ‘the millennials,’ or people in their 20s, to theater,” Gordon said Saturday during a panel discussion at Central Los Angeles High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.” Forget about it. It’s already too late. By the time you get your surveys back, those in their 20s will be in their 30s. If we’re not focusing on teens now, it’s already too late.”

Gordon has good reason to be less nervous than most theater professionals. Her 5-year-old program,  Steppenwolf for Young Adults, has 26 teenagers on a council that chooses productions apart from the theater’s regular season, meets with theater artists and explores ways to bring peers into the theater.

Rachel Fink, director of Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, had her own war stories to share when her company launched its Teen Council program, which matches youth with mentors in the theater arts, including local Berkeley playwrights, directors and set designers. “Some in administration were worried that kids would somehow take over the company, or that we’d have graffiti on the bathroom walls,” Fink said. “Given the level of resistance you meet, starting to engage youth in a gradual way can be a good thing.”

On Saturday, a 10-member panel of teenagers from both companies backed up Gordon and Fink. Three of them — Viviana Valadez, 18, Steppenwolf for Young Adults; Oscar Peña, 16, Berkeley Rep Teen Council; and Taylor Greenthal, 17, Berkeley Rep Teen Council — were also present at one of TCG’s Friday “What If … ” sessions moderated by Randy Symank, managing director of CounterPULSE theater in San Francisco.

“It’s a little overwhelming to walk into an environment in which people have worked so hard all their lives to be here, and you’re just a teenager,” Greenthal said.

Tapping theater’s fountain of youth isn’t easy. Gordon stressed that getting Steppenwolf for Young Adults off the ground was years in the making. But here are a few points culled from both sessions — gathered from teenagers in both the Berkeley and Chicago programs — to pack your tool kit:

The numbers are alarming: According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, young adult attendance in the 18-24 age range for plays is down 28 percent from 1982 to 2008. Also, in 1982 the average age of a person attending theater was 32. In 2008, that average age was 45.

Programming for youth succeeds best when they have a say.  Sometimes that includes letting them produce plays of their own. Whatever you do, don’t “dumb down” just to draw a younger audience: “It’s not as if we want to see High School Musical or even American Idiot,” Peña said. “We have the mental capacity to appreciate real theater and heavy themes. When I saw Ruined it struck me on an unbelievable level.”  Gordon concurred. “The older I got the sooner I realized that I couldn’t design programming for them anymore. It’s best to let them interact with artists and decide on their own programming.”

But if you let youth make programming decisions, it doesn’t hurt to plan events extra to the production: When Steppenwolf for Young Adults hosted a production of To Kill A Mockingbird, Valadez said, they designed a theater event that also featured a bluegrass band and Southern-style food. “We even did and event around Endgame,” Valadez told Saturday’s panel. “And people liked it.

Depending on your organization’s size, resources and time, you can engage youth at many levels. You can …

Support youth as an audience member: Patricia Garza, department manager of education and community partnerships for Center Theatre Group, in Los Angeles,  said it’s not enough to work at increasing youth attendance at her own theater. It’s a two-way street. Her full-time education staff sees local high school theater productions across Los Angeles to create a symbiotic relationship with the community. “We have to support them in what they’re doing if we also expect support from youth in the community.”

Mentor them: Berkeley Rep School of Theatre’s Teen Council program operates on the level of pure theater, finding mentors for teenagers in various theater pursuits when their high schools have often cut arts education programs. When Peña wanted to design sets for the company’s one-act productions aimed at teens, they found him three mentors in the field.

Organize them: In a different approach, Gordon said Steppenwolf for Young Adults decided early that the company’s program would be open to all youth interested in any aspect of theater, not just those interested in playwrighting, acting, directing or set design. That way the program makes room for teenagers interested in arts administration positions, or simply developing a love for theater. That said, the program expects a certain level of commitment. “Ours is more of a leadership program open to kids of all interest,” Gordon said. “More than three absences means we have a real discussion with the student.”

Aim for critical mass: “As long as you’re busy working with as many young people already interested in theater, it has the chance to go viral,” Fink said. It helps, too, that the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre is four blocks away from Berkeley High School.

Selling the fringe benefits of a theater education to wary parents isn’t impossible: “That’s one thing I’ve learned as an advocate for the arts,” Peña said during Saturday’s panel. “Theater is an education in that it helps you work well in a group and makes you  a more effective communicator.”

Whatever you do, don’t stop talking to youth: “This year’s TCG conference is a lot more open to youth than last years,” said Sean Chang, a member of Steppenwolf for Young Adults. “Last year everyone was talking about the importance of cultivating a younger audience when we were right there, waiting to be talked to.”

For more information: Steppenwolf for Young Adults and Berkeley Repertory Theatre Teen Council

Ben Fulton

Ben Fulton, who writes about theater and other assorted arts matters for the Salt Lake Tribune, is an amateur violinist who still has not seen The Book of Mormon.

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  1. Suzi Steffen says:

    This headline wins the fellowship, Ben! And the rest of it ain’t too bad either. 🙂 Sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye to you — see you in SLC sometime, I guess — I hope.

    • Ben Fulton says:

      Thanks, Suzi! Hope all’s well in Oregon with you, your partner, and your cats. Call anytime you’re in SLC.