Less than ten percent of the American population goes to the theatre. Not award-winning Broadway musical theatre, but regional, not-for-profit theatre. This sad number is not new. We’ve been stagnating here for quite some time, and every year we struggle with: how do we lure in more audience members, and convince people to join us in the dark and listen to our stories?

Honestly, I don’t think that there’s much the theatre community can do to solve this problem because I don’t believe that we are the problem. The problem is that ninety-plus percent of the population loses interest in theatre long before they become part of a target audience demographic. Most Americans get turned off of theatre in high school.

Two years ago I started to do an independent study of which plays high school students were reading in their language arts classes. It quickly became clear that the only plays being taught in those classes were classic works, mostly Shakespeare. Every student I surveyed listed at least one, if not three, Shakespeare play. At one school, more than half the kids listed Beowulf as a play. And why wouldn’t they? When the only actual plays they were reading were Shakespeare, why wouldn’t they equate epic poetry with theatre? The most recent works represented at any school were The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun, and the occasional August Wilson play. When I asked what theatre the students had seen outside of school the answers were inevitably all musicals (plus A Christmas Carol), if indeed they’d ever seen a play outside of school at all.

America’s high school students are being taught that non-musical theatre equals classical theatre, and preliminary results from my study indicate that the vast majority of them don’t like the classics.

  • “I did not enjoy reading the Tempest; I believe it to be one of the most tedious works of fiction ever to exist.”
  • “They are old and boring.”
  • “I was not crazy about Romeo and Juliet due to the fact it was written in old English and kind of hard to understand.”
  • “Shakespeare plays, they are not from our time and difficult to follow/understand.”

Shakespeare was an incredible playwright, but his plays are dense and daunting. Before the Bard idolaters start bellowing “why should it be easy?” let’s take a moment to consider this: Most kids are never asked to read a play before high school; plays are typically not part of the middle school curriculum. To introduce teens to plays on the page with Shakespeare is akin to teaching calculus to students before they’ve learned algebra, or even multiplication. A few students will somehow have a knack for it, and understand it, (and love it)—most of the folks who subscribe to HowlRound likely fall into this category—but the ninety-plus percent of the population that we’re trying to engage have neither the tools nor the patience to dissect Shakespeare. What they learned from their academic experience is that non-musical theatre is boring, difficult, and makes them feel stupid. Very few people are going to grow up and buy a ticket to something they fear will bore them and make them feel stupid.

(L-R) Chuck (Jerry MacKinnon), Jeannie (Carolyn Braver), Zander (JJ Phillips) and Ian (Clancy McCartney) playing video games in Deborah Zoe Laufer's Leveling Up at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

A Troubling Lack of Access
No other form of literature is taught this way; indeed, no other art form is taught this way. Kids are encouraged to read current, popular fiction in school. Perhaps by the time they reach high school their choices are narrowed, but at least by then they’ve been encouraged to read dozens of contemporary books that they love. Students are assigned novels and poetry by living authors, many of whom are—gasp—not white men. Art class is full of hands-on work where the students create while they study masters both new and old. Even music instructors teach jazz and hip hop alongside classical music. But let’s pretend for a moment that they didn’t. Let’s imagine that schools only taught classical music the way they only teach classical theatre. It’s a fairly even comparison since only about 10 percent of the population goes to classical music performances. Even if students were only exposed to classical music in school, even if they hated it, resented it, felt it wasn’t their thing; they wouldn’t be turned off of all music because they have access to other flavors.

The radio is free. Songs on YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify are free if you have an Internet connection. There is no equivalent to the radio, or Pandora for theatre. There’s not much free access for anyone anywhere. I suppose people could go to the library and read some new-ish plays, but what teenager—who has already been turned off by the classroom offerings— is going to seek out a play at the library? What the school system has created is a society that has no idea that theatre is a living, growing art that is still being created every day. People don’t realize that a significant portion of the folks who write their favorite TV shows have also written plays they would like just as much, if not more. They think of playwrights as an extinct species. When I tell people outside of theatre what my profession is, I am often met with a confused stare, as if I told them I was a blacksmith. They’ve heard of playwriting, but they weren’t aware that anyone did it anymore. This is a problem.

Just this past month, I interviewed audience members as part of Triple Play, a national study of audiences for new plays created by Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area. We were directed to tell our interviewees that we were theatre practitioners, but nothing more specific than that. We spoke to each person for fifty minutes, asking them if they were able to speak to someone working on a production, who they might want to talk to. These semi-regular theatregoers were not interested in talking to playwrights. Indeed, in my group, three people explicitly stated that they thought playwrights would dislike talking to audiences and would only be doing it under duress. They couldn’t quite imagine what they might ask a playwright aside from where their story idea came from. And yet, at the end of the interviews, when I revealed I was a playwright, they were fascinated and full of questions. So it’s not so much that they aren’t interested in living writers, but they aren’t able to picture an interaction with a playwright until they realize they’re already having one.

Creating Access to New Work
If we’re going to increase audiences, we have to figure out how to bring new plays into the high school language arts classroom. We have to create anthologies of new plays (perhaps digital anthologies) that have curriculum tie-ins to historical events, current events, social issues, and science. I know these plays are out there. We need to present these plays to teachers and say, “You can read this play alongside this other book, or these articles.” Teachers don’t have time to look for tie-ins or support materials. We’ll have to provide them. We’ll have to persuade department heads and school boards to let go of Shakespeare and maybe even Arthur Miller. It won’t be easy.

We’re also going to have to provide these anthologies for free to a lot of schools that can’t afford them, but need them most. We’ll have to create new ones every few years so that more voices are heard and the subject matter remains relevant. We’ll also need funding and grant support; again, the plays are already out there. People say that Shakespeare is universal, and anyone can see themselves in a Shakespeare play. Maybe if they try hard enough they can, but girls need more stories about women written by women. People of color need stories about people who look like them, written by people who look like them. The LGBTQIA teen community needs plays that openly acknowledge their existence and their struggles. Shakespeare is not enough. Leave him for senior year, or maybe leave him for college for the truly passionate.

We need to get our plays into these kids’ hands because our plays will engage them; the future of theatre depends on it. Our plays will show them that theatre is alive, that it’s relevant, that it addresses today, that it represents them and their experience, and that they are welcome in our spaces. Once we do that, I have a feeling that more than 10 percent of the population will come to the theatre. We merely have to show people that we’re here, that we exist. Before they’re disenchanted. Before they’re convinced that theatre is dusty and old and only written by dead white men hell-bent on making them feel stupid.