With major summer festivals in full swing throughout metropolitan and regional Australia, discussions abound in the arts sector about how to attract new audiences. Many of these conversations come back to an assumption that new audiences should be young.
Fergus Linehan was the CEO and Artistic Director of the Sydney Festival in 2007. In that year he wrote a fascinating essay in the Sydney Morning Herald arguing that it is absurd to put so much effort into attracting younger audiences. Because this issue is still hot on the agenda in 2014 I would like to share his essay with you again.
Theatre of only the young is absurd
Fergus Linehan, SMH, October 20, 2007
Several years ago I attended a public interview at the National Theatre in London with the great theatre director and writer Peter Brook. He said something that has stayed with me.
Asked about audience size as a measure of success he said: “Of course, at the end of the day, theatres must be full, but they must be full honourably. It’s easy to fill a theatre dishonourably; it’s even easier to empty it honourably.”
This is an eloquent summation of the challenges facing those leading today’s theatres. His words support my own belief, that far from being above the mundane details of box-office numbers, great artists are keenly aware of how many people see their work and are deeply concerned when they fail to make an effect on public consciousness.
From the outside, I imagine people might think that we in the theatre business think the equation goes something like this: commercial and popular equals dishonourable while niche and difficult equals honourable. While there might be some truth in this, I think there is much more to the matter and increasingly it comes down to the most complex issue we face – the audience. Theatres are now judged just as much on who they attract as what they produce.
Young people are commonly regarded as the most honourable audience, the Holy Grail. In my opinion, the value of young audiences is often wildly overstated and twists organisations into knots.
I am in New York at the moment to meet Christopher Wheeldon, the man whom the media seem to have charged with the small task of “saving classical ballet”. In a recent interview Wheeldon said: “Ballet has an ageing audience pretty much wherever you go. Sydney, for instance, was shocking to me. I sat there at the Opera House and was hard pushed to count maybe five or six people my age  or under in the audience. I felt so depressed and saddened by the environment.”
As someone who works for an organisation that attracts a relatively young audience, I am sympathetic to Wheeldon’s plight, but at the same time this preoccupation with younger audiences seems part of an ever-encroaching worship and overemphasis of youth. Is a seat occupied by someone in their 60s less valuable than a seat occupied by someone in their 20s? I can only imagine a customer hitting retirement after a lifetime of paying taxes, having the time to enjoy the many arts activities they have been paying to establish over the course of their life. For that person to read that their presence is making for a depressing and saddened environment is a little harsh.
Here in New York a senior funder recently announced: “If you don’t do something, you’ll be left with guys who have false teeth and white hair. Eventually, they’ll all die and you’ll have nothing.” These are people he is talking about, not livestock. No one seems to stop to consider that this language is offensive towards people who have been supportive and generous to these institutions throughout their lives.
When I started working in the arts there was the usual joke that looking out over the classical music audience was like staring into a sea of grey. They would all die out, we were told, and there would be no one to replace them. Well it turned out that there was someone to replace them, the next generation. The truth is that people come to different art forms at different stages of their lives. This does not invalidate the art form or make it any less adventurous or relevant. In fact the older audience is often far more open to new ideas and forms than their younger counterparts who often use live performance, quite legitimately, as a social backdrop to the far more pressing concerns of talking to friends, dancing, and having a few drinks. But as life moves along, new areas of interest will open up to them.
This focus has sent organisations into often surreal twists and turns trying to prove their youthful credentials. More than any other area in the arts, “audience development” is often confused, regularly tokenistic and at times downright embarrassing. Unsure about the merits of supporting art for arts sake, funding agencies and foundations focus their attention on developing younger audiences. Institutions in turn work around the clock to find ways to show how their ballet, orchestra or theatre company is reaching out to young people. They hang on a few nights where “young people” experience the art form and then hang around, drink beer perhaps with a DJ playing in the foyer. Like watching your parents getting funky at a wedding, these nights send a shiver down the spine. However, there are many photographers around to take pictures for the annual report.
The Sydney Festival happens to attract a young audience, but we are a very large event and have always been charged with the task of speaking to many different parts of the community. The most pressing reality that we need to embrace is not how to speak to late teens; it is how we plan to address the fastest-growing population in the country – those older than 60.
It is my belief that while acknowledging the need to keep our work relevant to many age groups, it is time to show a bit more respect to the large, loyal and open-minded army of boomers that will be arriving soon at a theatre near you.