How will the Age of Attention Deficit affect our art?

We all know that we have shorter attention spans than we used to.  In fact, according to this, goldfish can pay attention to stimuli longer than humans can.

And this is even more true for all the pesky whipper-snappers out there who were practically born with a digital device in their cute little fingers.  They are the multi-tasking generation.  And they’re pretty damn good at it.

So if it’s hard to get a pesky whipper-snapper to pay attention, just imagine how hard it’s going to be to get the next generation (termed “Generation Z”) to sit still before they want to move on to the next thing.  (I wonder how many pesky whipper-snappers have already stopped reading this blog . . . or clicked over to check their Facebook real fast before coming back here to finish this article.)

You know where I’m going with this, right?

The theater more than most other forms of live entertainment, demands that an audience sit down, shut up, and shut out all other attention seekers.  At a concert, or a sporting event, you can scream and yell and take pictures on your phone, and chat with your buddy sitting next to you . . . or on the other side of the planet, and it won’t bother anyone.  But at the theater, or the symphony, or the ballet, or any of the, ahem, “High Life Entertainment Arts,” you gotta be still.

And it’s getting harder for people to do that.

What does this mean for the theater?

We’re already seeing shorter running times on Broadway, as you may recall from this study we did.  That’s the most obvious repercussion from our new goldfish like brains.

But over the next ten years, we’ll see even greater changes to help satisfy what our new audience needs to get them to focus.  Here are some things that I think will change:

  • Shows will get even shorter.
    • 90 minutes will be the new two hours and twenty minutes.  Same amount of story-telling stuffed into a smaller box.
  • We’ll have more lighting cues.
    • Every time light changes, it’s like a little palette cleanser on the brain, forcing it to reset and start paying attention again.
  • Expect more sets and more spectacle.
    • The days of the “Drawing Room Drama” are coming to an end.  The next audience will need more stuff on the stage to keep them engaged.  And that stuff will have to do stuff.
  • Tech will be key.
    • Tech is practically a food group to the pesky whipper-snapper set.  So the next gen?  They’re going to want it everywhere.
  • Classics will face challenges.
    • How will Death of a Salesman be told to the next gen?  What about Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, any of Shakespeare’s plays?  We’ll need some creative directors for shizzle.
  • Dialogue and direction will get quicker.
    • Expect more Mamet and Sorkin-styled plays in the future.

Is this changing audience a bad thing?  Will it have a negative effect on the theater?  I’m a big believer in that the audience decides on what’s excellent and what’s not, and as they change, so must the art.

And if you’re worried that we won’t be able to handle these changes?  Don’t be.  See, the trick is as the audience changes, so does the artists who create the art for that audience.

Generation Z will create art for Generation Z.  That art will be different. I expect it’ll be awesome in its own right.

(There’s another way this attention deficit may affect the theater that I don’t think anyone is thinking about . . . see tomorrow’s blog for my follow-up.)


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  • Frank says:

    You had me until the “for shizzle” line. You’re better than that, Ken.

    On the topic… I agree with most of what you say with the exception of the “Expect more sets and more spectacle.” While I do see a trend towards large spectacle theater, I feel that what audiences want are to be engaged. Pacing might well be the thing that has to change the most as you said with “Dialogue and direction will get quicker.”

    A good example of this is Hamilton. The show is not as much spectacle as it is pacing. It keeps audiences engaged thru quick changes and packed story lines. For this reason, the “classics” will most definitely have to be adapted to reach these standards for sure.

  • Jed says:

    Haiku musicals. How bout that for short attention spans? Or musicals with under a thousand characters. The fact is, our species is smack dab in the middle of a profound evolution. Increasingly short attention spans, due to distractions, is one of the main pitfalls.

  • Steven Conners says:

    You, as usual, are on target. You are a ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ guy. Does this observation and comment mean that revivals of “classic’ productions can’t be done. Does “Guys and Dolls” have to be re-imagined for Gen X and Z using not the original music, but more hip tunes and an electronic score and modern clothes and sets? Isn’t tradition important? Is new-new? Don’t have an opinion. Just asking. —sjc

  • Rich Mc says:

    Just my $0.02, but I believe the opposite will ensue. Generation Z will rebel against the ‘flash in the pan’ superficiality that perpetually envelopes them, and look gratefully to theater to provide a more honest and unadorned philosophical view of the world to provide meaning.
    A few actors on the stage with a plot that invokes classical meaning-of-life themes
    vis a vis omnipresent technology will draw them like flies.

  • Tom Hartman says:

    I have to agree that, when it comes to big ticket shows, tech and spectacle certainly matter. I’ve already picked my big ticket holiday show this year based on the promo trailer. Chicago is getting a two-week run of “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night”. I saw that promo and thought “THAT’s what I’m going to spend $125 on this Christmas”.

  • Emma Tchekof says:

    I guess grammar will be a thing of the past, too: “See, the trick is as the audience changes, so does the artists who create the art for that audience.” Toss that subject/verb agreement right out with the attention span. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

  • Randy White says:

    Good points Ken. So consider Hamilton. check, check, check, etc.

  • Joe Dahlem says:

    Another outstanding sharing Ken. You have brought high beam headlights to a
    Road filled with fog.

    I am trying to gather many disjointed groups and pieces of St. Louis theater
    on September 29.
    We have Fox
    And then ten quality small disjointed groups.
    We have young students, young adults, adults, seniors and various College
    and high school programs. I,unite all of these folks and get them talking and
    working together.

    I have been bringing groups of up to 120 at a time to Broadway since the mid 80’s
    We come up for 7-10 days and I help some of the people
    to have mystical experiences of
    healing. Childhood trauma, loss of spouse/children/marriages etc.

    I have methods much cheaper than traditional therapy for people to focus their
    attention through prayer and meditation and let live performer tigger their hurts.
    Often it is as simple as everyone laughing and the person feels left out.
    I have come to Broadway every year since 1967. As a Catholic University man I
    would drive up early on Saturday, hit two shows and then return. The 3-4 friends
    I would bring in my rusty Valient station wagon at 27 cent a gallon gas,
    $1 Broadway ticket. Parking the car cost more than anything back then.
    The ushers would move us down from the balcony to empty seats.
    Theater fed my soul. I used it like Thomas Merton did in his classes to monks.

    By 1985 I paid $10000 a ticket for my wife and I to attend the Tony Awards where
    I got to talk with John Goodman as Big River won that year. I even got 40 minutes
    alone with Andrew Weber at an Alexander Cohen party.

    I so appreciate what you are doing for my favorite obsession and hobby.

    I will be bringing another group next June. Last year I got over 60 of the 78 friends
    into see Hamilton (I preferred Shuffle Along and Brite Star) but it was wonderful
    except for the audience screaming like it was a sporting event
    (your point in today’s Sharing)

    I am basically a Catholic School teacher. I connect a dozen theater groups and
    Hope I can use your genius to unite our little community to cooperate that Our
    Theater supports your,community. You asked a few weeks ago how you can help
    Do you have any suggestions for my September 29 meeting?
    I am told I have the longest support of New York in the USA and the only one
    doing it as a hobby.

    Sorry this is so long.

    God bless

    Joe Dahlem
    I’m on Facebook

    P S we love your little theater. I am a huge supporter of Forbidden Broadway

    Thank you thank you thank you
    Sent from my iPad

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