When you go to the theatre often enough, you have a sense of what a typical audience feels like. It’s older, it’s largely women, and it’s very white. Saturday matinees attract the oldest collection of people in the world. Unless a production is specifically created for and marketed to young people, there won’t be many of them. If there are lots of young people in an audience, then there won’t be many old people: they tend to cancel each other out.
Opera audiences are older still than theatre audiences, but ballet audiences are younger. Ballet audiences span three generations attending together: grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who’ve all dreamed of the day when they would wear a tutu and go up en pointe on stage.
Audiences that differ from these usual age ranges are invigorating. I was amazed the first time I sat among the youthful audience at La Boite in Brisbane, a theatre whose audience is 40% under 30. In Adelaide recently, as we waited for Daniel Kitson’s new work Polyphony to start, my dad looked around the audience. ‘See,’ he remarked, ‘young people do go to the theatre!’
But when we look at ticket prices, is it any wonder audience demographics are generally narrow? Talk to many people of a certain generation who have been involved in the arts in Adelaide, and they cite the ‘Theatre Passport’ as crucial in fostering their love of theatre. In 1977, when it began, students could buy unsold day tickets to shows for $1. Even for those who were encouraged or cajoled by teachers to take up the offer, must have found the ability to see shows so cheaply miraculous.
The Theatre Passport scheme is now little more than folklore. The only online reference to it appears in the City of Sydney’s new cultural policy document; the details are impossible to nut out in a Facebook thread filled with conflicting memories.
There are accessible ticket schemes around the country, and Adelaide still has one of Australia’s strongest industry-wide youth ticketing schemes, with TREv now encouraging and supporting a culture where arts organisations are accustomed to providing cheaper ticket prices for those under 30. But prices today are, more often than not, a far cry from those $1student tickets of 1977 – or what would be just $5.25 today, not even enough to cover booking fees for many ticketing companies.
And even then: ticket prices are only part of the battle.
Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, yes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be.
At the 2014 Perth Festival, I found myself sitting in an audience that was 70% men – mostly young – from a variety of cultural backgrounds, for Situation Rooms, an interactive work that cast a critical lens on the international gun trade. With an audience of just 20, the variance between each show’s audience would have been high – as I left, a group of teenage girls were waiting for the next performance – but to watch that work along with teenage boys changed the whole feeling around the event.
This year, as I waited to see Nothing to Lose at Dance Massive, the foyer was filled with bodies just like those we were about to watch on stage. My friend Karen Pickering turned to me and said, ‘I don’t even care what the show is like. The fact that people decided to make this show, create it, rehearse it, and put it on at the Malthouse is enough.’ It was enough that a dance piece with fat bodies was being made; for this audience that alone was deeply important. The high quality of the work was a bonus.
Last year, at Melbourne Theatre Company, I attended a school’s matinee performance of David Greig’s Yellow Moon. Greig’s play weaves narration and conversation to tell the story of two teenagers who, in a night of fear, run away from their Scottish hometown. There is Lee, who hasn’t taken off his hat since his dad left when he was five, and whose mother drinks to get through her depression. And there is Leila. Silent Leila, a young Muslim woman who one day decided to stop talking, who on Friday nights goes to the all-night superstore to read celebrity magazines and buy packets of disposable razors to cut her arms.
In the traverse theatre I sat opposite a group of Hijabi teenage students, watching a young women of colour in a Hijab onstage. Leila, as played by Naomi Rukavina, was intelligent, struggling, quiet. Complex and passionate. Deeply flawed. She wasn’t a character to look up to, to emulate. She was just as damaged and floundering as anyone else on that stage, in a play about the ways we battle, about what it’s like to be a teenager and to be scared. As I watched, I hoped the young women in the audience were excited by this complexity; I hoped they would see many more female characters that captured parts of them in years to come.
This past weekend, I had the joy of volunteering as a performer in post’s Oedipus Schmoedipus. Ultimately, the work is a feminist performance piece that uses our knowledge of a true universality (the inevitability of death) to tear apart a received universality (that of the white, masculine, heteronormative ‘great classic theatre canon’), while, like the work of Young Jean Lee before it, also finding comfort in the mundanity of this inevitability. Our audience saw this story told by a slightly ramshackle, very under-rehearsed cast, who collectively formed one of the most diverse group of faces – and accents – they’ll see on stage all year.
On stage instead of sitting in the audience, I spent my time working with wonderful people: the woman who moved to Australia to do her master’s degree in translation; the young students from the VCA; the woman who heard about the show from an ‘Americans in Melbourne’ Facebook group. An open call was put out for people to give their time and heart in exchange for a meal, a ticket for a friend, and a chance to step on stage, and this collection of people who said ‘yes’ was wonderfully varied.
From the stage, Oedipus Schmeodipus isn’t perceived so much as a feminist performance, as it is a democratisation of performance. And democratisation is exactly what is needed if theatre is to become accessible. It needs to be accessible at the ticket booth, and it needs to be accessible on the stage. We need to see bodies that capture Australia: our sizes, our heritage, our religions, our disabilities, our genders. We need to capture all of our stories, in all our complexity.
By the same token, theatre needs to be challenging. For every time an audience member has seen a body like theirs on stage, they should also see someone that is radically different.
Some people have a lot of catching up to do.
Discussions about the accessibility of theatre for young people often take place within a conversational framework of ‘if we want theatre to survive’. These terms imply that theatre is in and of itself a thing worth saving. For theatre to live on past its current, aging subscription audiences, yes, we do need new and younger audiences who will buy tickets for many years to come. But if they’re not given the opportunity to buy tickets to work that is representative – and exciting and relevant and challenging – is it really worth saving? Theatre will save itself, but only if it’s prepared to explode out of what it has been, and find out what it can be next.