June 19, 2010

Guest Blogger (a first for us!): Holly Arsenault on engaging young audiences

You may remember a quote from Holly in my recent post about “pipeline” vs. “parallel” strategies for young artsgoers. Holly knows this turf far better than I do: she runs Seattle Center Teen Tix, a thriving program that lets teens buy $5 tickets to almost any arts organization in the Seattle area. And she has a secret wish.

Guest blogger Holly Arsenault is the program manager of Seattle Center Teen Tix and has taught theater and writing to students from kindergarten through college. She is also a playwright and dramaturg. I asked her whether engaging young people requires a shift in artistic programming to accommodate their distinct needs, or whether we can attract them to existing programming with targeted marketing messages, social events before or after the program, etc. Here’s her full response:

Ha! Yes. That is the question. I’ve always said (actually, I’ve rarely said, but I’ve always thought) that my secret, subversive goal with Teen Tix was to drag the median age of Seattle arts audiences down enough that it would start to have an impact on programming.

I’ll tell you this: if you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales to teens as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent, but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is.

Nor would I want to. The last thing you want is to convince a young person to go see something by claiming that it’s something that it’s not, then have them bored or alienated by the experience. So, despite our success at growing this audience, I do spend a lot of time wishing that I had better (meaning: more youth-friendly) material to work with.

That said, I do find that teen audiences, particularly at the younger end of the age spectrum, tend to be more conservative in their tastes than you might expect. I think some of them have a preconceived notion of what an arts experience should look like, and they like to have that notion confirmed before they become interested in branching out and trying new things. ...

Of course, you can’t lump all teenagers together and say “this is what they like,” any more than you can with Boomers. This is something I’m confronted with all the time as I work with our participating arts organizations around town: the notion that there is one type of programming that appeals to all teenagers.  (That, and the notion that there is some magical incantation of teen slang that I can recite to make hoards of young people rush your box office). There isn’t, of course, and even if there were, it would change as soon as you figured out what it was. That’s the joyful challenge of trying to serve this demographic; they are impossible to pin down. I love that about them, actually.

Teen Tix's Teen Night at the Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall

But I do see a very gradual sea change happening. When I started this job, I had some benchmarks in mind: institutional shifts that would tell me we were getting somewhere. One was our participating organizations starting to fundraise based on their partnerships with us. That happened, en masse, when the Wallace Foundation came to town with its Excellence Awards grants.

Another was those organizations starting to shift their programming toward a younger audience. That’s starting to happen, too. Last year Seattle Rep did a production of Speech & Debate (a high school-themed show) that we helped promote, and it was one of Teen Tix’s biggest successes yet. And Jerry Manning, Seattle Rep’s new artistic director (and my former boss), just announced an initiative called the YES Project, which he describes this way in his welcome letter:

“The YES Project’s primary purpose is to work with writers (especially young ones) to find and develop work for our stages that will resonate with young audience members.”

So I’m encouraged. Personally, I think that programming selected with a younger audience in mind would enrich everyone’s experience, including older audiences. But it feels risky, and, as we know, a lot of arts organizations are deeply risk-averse. Some older trustee types might balk — it’s all well and good to cheer for younger arts audiences, as long as you’re still playing the role of the knowledgeable elder bestowing the gift of some lofty, high experience on them. But when the youth start influencing (some might say threatening) the programming with their tastes and desires, it’s a whole different ballgame.

That’s a conflict that I really hope we’ll get to see play out over the next few years. But it will take organizations that are willing to push their current, older audiences out of their comfort zones in order to invest in their future audiences.

Ultimately, a bedrock conviction behind Teen Tix is that we can only get the teen audience to your door. You have to do the rest. We’re like a dating service: we can make the introduction, but if you act like a jerk on the date (by, say, treating me like I don’t belong or showing me programming that bores me, or even just sticking me in a bad seat), I’m probably not coming back for round two, y’know?


Catherine Jett — June 22, 2010

Hearing that a few organizations are starting to program with teens specifically in mind is really encouraging. And I agree that older audiences enjoy programming designed for youth--I've often found myself having more fun and feeling engaged in a new way with kid- and teen-oriented programs. Let's hope that more organizations will grow comfortable taking risks in re-thinking some of their programming.

Dylan Zucati — August 19, 2010

I'm a fifteen year old actor and I have to say that teen tix is one of the best organizations for my generation of actors. The only two problems with this organization is that certain theatres havn't jumped on the bandwagon yet and in all the pictures teen tix take of me I'm making a stupid face (pictured above).

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