What every regional theater should have.

I was asked to speak at the Arizona Presenters Alliance annual retreat yesterday and during one of my sessions, which I call, “Stump The Marketing Guy!” (I offer a $100 prize to anyone that can give me a problem that I can’t find at least one action-item solution for), I was asked what I would do to get more young people to the theater.

I offered some of my standard solutions like 1) create a “young patron’s circle” whose job it is to find more people like themselves, 2) offer young theatergoers a free ticket if they bring someone under 30 with them to a show, 3) program more entertainment geared for the 20-something crowd, etc.

The person who asked the question was a young one herself, so I asked her, “Why do you go to the theater?”

“I was exposed to it by my parents when I was young.  I fell in love with it.”

Not coincidentally, that’s my story too.  And it’s a lot of people’s stories who love theater . . . golf . . . fashion, whatever.  Hook ‘em as a kid, and you might have ‘em for life.

So, while my above suggestions were potential quick fixes to their problem with the young’uns, I also gave them a bigger long term solution that I suggest for every single theater out there.

Every single regional theater should have shows just for kids at some point in their season, and as often as possible.  I’m talking Cinderella, or Freckleface Strawberry or anything with Bears.  The production values don’t have to be high.  Kids don’t need falling chandeliers.  And parents don’t care either, they just need something to do with their kids on a Saturday that doesn’t involve the television.

This is going to be some work, and some money as well (but not as much as you’d think), but the potential long-term benefits for your theater and for the theater in general are enormous.   And you can put your interns on it, or partner with a local community theater, but make sure you have live theatrical entertainment for kids today, so that we have audiences for tomorrow.


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  • Here here! Additionally, I’d add in that programming, a helpful tool is to appropriate things from other mediums of children’s entertainment (TV, Movies), and translate them into live theatrical terms.
    That’s what we do, and we’ve found kids to be really responsive to it.

  • Jake says:

    Totally agree.
    The bigger theaters (and smaller ones) should also offer theater camps and such. There’s no better way to fall in love with the theater than doing it.
    Roundabout’s Hiptix has made me more loyal to them than any other major company in the city (MTC’s 30 under 30 is confusing, and LCT’s LincTix is brand new). I’ve seen almost every Roundabout show since I moved here.

  • Katie C says:

    I’m disheartened that you think kids don’t deserve high production values. They are just as smart and discriminating as adults, and deserve such programming. This week there has been an especially high chatter about TYA, and I am disappointed that someone who should be “in the know” proposes theater for kids should be a throwaway project for interns.
    In addition to the great Howl Round post, these other articles/posts came out this week about theater for kids:

  • Carrie says:

    Sure, if you want kids growing up to expect theater to be boring, condescending and totally mediocre, then by all means, have your interns do a cheap, saccharine play about bears. If you want kids to grow up and love theater because it can be a transformative, engaging, and entertaining experience, then you’ve got to take them seriously as an audience and give them theater that is as high-quality and sophisticated as “adult” theater.

  • Caroline says:

    I’m with Carrie and Katie. I can’t even fathom that anyone with a vested interest in the future of theater would make the following statements:
    “The production values don’t have to be high.”
    “Parents don’t care either, they just need something to do with their kids on a Saturday that doesn’t involve the television.”
    “Put your interns on it.”
    Actually, the majority of parents I know would rather not go to theater at all than go to theater that’s schmaltzy and singey-dancey-smiley, which seems to be the majority of kids’ theater that’s out there. And isn’t that the opposite of what we want? These days parents have LOTS of options for things to do with their kids, and if theater wants to compete, we need to up our game and give people a quality product.
    If you’re going to create children’s shows, give them the same respect as your “regular” shows – it should be part of the focus of your full-time artistic staff who understand production value and artistry. Kids are smart and deserve theater that acknowledge that.
    The reason the U.S. falls way behind other countries in terms of theater for young audiences is because of this cavalier attitude that kids only deserve the theatrical equivalent of fast food.

  • C.J. says:

    You have effectively offended everyone, including I bet Julianne Moore, who works in the field of Theater for Young Audiences. It is from a typical marketing perspective that you are blogging and have made absolutely no effort to research what theatre for kids is, can be or will be. And if you actually know how much artists in America and international artists take this work seriously, then you are disciplicable.

  • In hindsight as I re-read my blog, I think I left out an important fact that led me to my statement on production values. That statement was in response to the person who asked the question saying, “But we lack the resources to start a children’s theater company.” My response was that something, even if it is a pro bono community project with simple sets and borrowed costumes has a better shot at building tomorrow’s audience than no theater at all. My goal is to create the best theater within your economic limitations. If the theater had more resources I’d be advising them to invest more into the production values because that would get the kids even further on the theatrical hook. They just didn’t, hence my comment. But I see why leaving that section of the conversation out might offend some and for that, I apologize. And, I’m going to make a $100 donation to a children’s theater company to help improve someone’s production values right now. Thanks for the comments.

  • Bert says:

    As the former artistic director of a theatre company for young audiences for twenty-eight years, I was taken aback by your comment that production values do no need to be high and parents don’t care. No matter what the financial resources, production values must be high! Parents DO care! The work my company created with small budgets was astounding! We are theatre artists. We give our best and then some. Parents buy the tickets–parents deserve to see a top-notch show too!
    I have recently launched a new non-profit theatre company in Connecticut for young audiences and their families and we are presenting our first show this fall on funds raised through kickstarter.
    I’ll happily accept a $100. donation from you, Ken, to help us with our production costs! You can find our address on our website, http://www.pantochino.com
    It’s tax deductible too!

  • Low production values doesn’t mean you can’t have a good production. And people who land theater internships are often talented and capable.
    I will never forget my daughter’s low production value version of the Nutcracker. They had a construction paper Christmas tree that grew with strings pulling it. Having ushered NYC Ballet’s Nutcracker for so many performances I couldn’t hear the score without shuddering for more than fifteen years–I saw big production values at their best. I found this more charming.
    I think there are many mainstage opportunities for parents to bring their kids to– while Oliver, Annie, Bye-Bye Birdie and Dear Edwina are great, you can take kids to most adult shows– Ask Seth Rudetsky, who has been mentioning this a lot on the Sirius XM Broadway channel. But if you want to target kids, there’s also Beauty and the BEast, Shrek, Little Mermaid, Cats, and Little Shop of Horrors. There are plenty of mainstage opportunities– from a marketing standpoint, offering family nights or bring your kids for free night would be a great incentive.

  • Tim McNair says:

    Even better, get them on stage. In Tacoma, when I was on the event selection committee for the BCPA, we always booked the Missoula Children’s Theater. They’d take 30 or so kids, work with them for a week, and then put on a show. (usually a fairy tale) the kids would range from toddlers to early teens. Everybody that showed up got a part. It was simply fantastic.

  • Melanie says:

    Lets definitely invite young people to the theater and make the experience welcoming. HOWEVER, Let us never pretend that kids appreciate something lesser than we do. I too fell in love with theater as a 10 year old and what did I love? Shakespeare, Beckett and Ionesco (and musicals) I never saw kids theater with my parents and when I was taken to such stuff later on a school trip I was surprised and extremely disappointed by how vapid it was. I heard about a regional theater who had a “bring the kids night” which is great! The audience is filled with parents so its much less embarrassing when yours is imperfectly behaved. It lets parents have a night our without paying a sitter, lets the kids develop the community of other young theater goers outside the academic setting. You can make curtain time 6 or 6:30 so kids still get to bed on time! (not to mention giving the repetory actors an early night that week) Good luck y’all!

  • janiska says:

    The economic incentive sounds fine for 20 somethings, but wouldn’t attract those you hope will fall in love with theater at a young age. Participation in theater camps and onstage always seems to create theater goers and might be an incentive for children and teens.
    Perhaps an economic incentive for parents likely strapped for cash in today’s economy would work. Maybe a declining ticket price or something would encourage parents to bring not only their children, but the children of their friends to the theater.

  • Joe Klein says:

    Production value doesn’t really matter, it is the value of the exposure to children that is priceless.
    I was exposed by puppet shows that took snippets of musical theater. They would invite kids up to play parts and bring them into the show. It was also an escape as at the time all the shows had a happy ending, which was much different then at home. It was a place to escape to. For kids you do not need high production value, they just need to hear the music and be part of something fun. It doesn’t always have to be a production, Sadly Arts are getting cut from schools, but just listening to a cast recording and learning about the plot. There are many ways to get children interested in theater, and it needs not have to be on a stage.

  • Allison says:

    In 2009, I took my 9 year old son to a cheesy “low production value” theater show. There were lots of fart jokes and slap stick with very little story structure and committed actors. His response: “The farts were funny, but, I’d rather go see a movie next time.” Then, I took him to a production of “There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom” at The University of Texas at Austin. I have no idea how much money was spent on the show, but the production value (to me) was HIGH. During the show, BOTH my son and I laughed and cried. His response after that show: “That was … amazing.” Whenever the topic of theater comes up in our house, he reflects on that theater experience. He even reminded me last fall to check on UT’s website to see if they were doing another production that he would enjoy. They not only won my son over, but his mother, too.

  • Adam says:

    Hey Ken, you couldn’t be more right… you know this is right in my strike zone… I even say that you can take it a step further and offer a show in which those kids have an opportunity to participate.. if possible.. I try o do one show a year in which the kids are the draw.. i.e., a childrens production of Cinderella or a show like Sound of Music which highlights the kids… That’s how you pass on the acting bug and groom for your productions!
    Adam G

  • dva says:

    I know that my daughter, 12, is much more interested if there is a child in the cast; not an adult playing a kid.

  • Michael H says:

    Hi Ken, Im glad other have picked up on the value of good kid’s theater. But then as we all know good work has a better chance of any audiences coming back than those that don’t respect their audiences

  • . It is from a typical marketing perspective that you are blogging and have made absolutely no effort to research what theater for kids is, can be or will be…good blog..so interesting..

  • Laura Kaplow-Goldman says:

    Ken, I work at The New Victory Theater, right on 42nd Street. This seems like a great opportunity to invite you to come and see any one of the thrilling, innovative and challenging productions that we will present to young audiences this season. I think you’ll be impressed and even inspired by the tremendous artistry you’ll see on our stage.

  • C.J. says:

    Whether you meant to or not, Ken, you have started a great conversation and one that is extrememly important with the most recent events of yesterday. How do we create quality theater for young audiences with limited resources? What is important is that we all seem to understand how valuable theater is for kids. We should continue to make every effort to provide these opportunities for children and their families.

  • David McKibbin says:

    Coming from South Florida, where theatre is starting to weaken as a whole, I can totally agree to some extent. Ever since the untimely closing of Florida Stage in West Palm Beach after it went Bankrupt, various members of the South Florida theatre community had to do SOMETHING about this. All of these ideas help to some extent. Even if a theatre like Florida Stage or Caldwell Theatre Company (in Boca Raton) cannot add a show to market a younger audience, people should see theatre no matter how old they are as children/adolescents, therefore there should be at least a strong promotion to teens and young adults in these theatre companies. Currently, The Caldwell Theatre Company’s target audience is becoming older adults and senior citizens. Therefore, Caldwell and companies like it should at least allow teens to take part in a young patrons circle, or offer such youth free tickets if they bring an adult over 30. Even The Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts; A NOT FOR PROFIT PERFORMING ARTS COMPLEX BRINGING IN NATIONAL TOURS WHICH MARKET YOUNGER AUDIENCES, does not even encourage students to see their touring shows by starting a “youth ambassador group” or even offering the simplest of student discount/rush tickets! Thank you for placing such emphasis on promoting live theatre towards people in my generation. Being a high school theatre student at an arts magnet high school where fewer people are appreciating their art by observing it at a professional (or even a community/high school level in some cases), I feel grateful that there are caring young individuals like myself who care about this and actually wish to take a stand, even though the battle for keeping theatre alive for generations to come has just begun. “Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in Heaven has in store! One more Dawn! One more Day! One Day More!”

  • CLJahn says:

    The theatre scene in South Florida is far from weakening; yes, we lost Florida Stage. But we’ve gained several small companies over the last few years, and there’s expansion at several companies.
    I was on staff at Florida Stage, and worked their Learning Stage program. While it reached a lot of children, and carried great messages, it never fostered the habit of attending live theatre. How could it? We were taking plays out to schools; they never learned what it was like to GO to a theatre.
    Actors’ Playhouse has had a full season of professionally produced children’s plays for most of its existence; and its audience is much younger than any Palm Beach theater. Why? Ask some of the twenty somethings you’ll see there, and they’ll tell you they started off seeing the kid’s shows, and then started seeing musicals with their parents, and now going to theatre is a part of their lives.
    The Broward Center for the Performing Arts takes a similar approach with its SEAS programming, which includes Family Fun days. Consequently, its audience skews a little younger than say, Broward Stage Door.
    So I can vouch for Ken’s approach; train the kids to go to theatre, and they’ll go.

  • CLJahn says:

    In my region, we have a company that creates high-production value plays exclusively for kids. These productions often surpass local “mainstage” productions in the level of detail they put into them, with materials imported from all over the globe. They are extensively researched, beautifully staged, and totally boring.
    Contrast that to another company that presents a full series of musicals for kids that has a limited budget. The sets and costumes are far more spartan, the dances less intricate, but they are lively and fun and engaging.
    It’s not high production values that kids – and adults – deserve; the point is to get them engaged in the production, to become emotionally invested in its outcome. Sure, sets, costumes, lights and sound can assist in that. But they are not crucial to it.

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