When was the last time you went to the theatre? Recent studies show that it was probably a while ago, and not necessarily due to a lack of interest but other factors that come into play. The bulk of theatre audiences is shouldered by young students (primary and high school) and mature age folk (usually 50+) and the gap in between is widening.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, theatre attendance by the 18-24 bracket has declined by more than 200 000 people over 15 years. This shows that younger audiences, specifically tertiary students, are disengaged from the sector in increasing numbers. School children’s theatre attendance is usually propped up by compulsory visits and theatre companies’ agreements with education providers or government agencies, but why are university students and those in their 20s and beyond not attending plays? Beyond a disappointing lack of interest in the art form, it could very well come down to a variety of factors – most pressingly marketing, ticket pricing and the student lifestyle.
Over the years these companies have dug deep to invest in high-quality marketing and communications strategies that should appeal to a younger, web-savvy and perhaps off-kilter “arty” audience – assuming the season productions themselves are appealing enough as they are to the stalwart older audiences. Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s rebranding of Sydney Theatre Company springs to mind here. An active digital presence, punchy visuals to announce each season’s productions and linking with tertiary education providers is key here, and will hopefully foster a new kind of theatre audience in time.
At the moment, however, it’s possible the message is simply not cutting through to university students. Despite all efforts, those in our age bracket have the lowest attendance of theatre performances; in fact the lowest of almost all cultural events except popular music concerts where we are far ahead.
It’s evident that the student lifestyle does not necessarily lend itself to splurging on seeing regular big-name productions, despite a love of the genre. Martin Perez-McVie, an Arts/Law undergraduate, told me, “Being a student, money is a big obstacle. That makes me more likely to go to see something by a smaller independent company rather than larger productions, unless student tickets are heavily discounted. Downloading a movie for example is substantially cheaper but I really enjoy the medium of theatre. It’s hard to beat flesh and blood human beings acting in front of you”. There is also a perceived air of pretension and inaccessibility surrounding the world of theatre, something that Kate White, a visual arts student and graphic designer, has found. “I don’t go as I cannot afford it. The “thespians” around here are extremely elitist and condescending. I tend to stay away from the theatre scene.”
Belvoir St Theatre in Surry Hills, for example, tries to open up this conversation for students and young people, rather than excluding potential arts connoisseurs and future workers. Elly Clough, a spokeswoman for the company said, “For us, the idea of access incorporates whatever background or understanding is necessary to fully appreciate the work of our theatre company. This principle informs all the programs and resources we offer. We believe that removing obstacles, especially financial ones, to young people experiencing and being changed by theatre allows young people to contemplate careers in the arts they might never have otherwise thought of. Quite apart from that, experiencing live performance allows everyone, including young people, to contemplate what is human and to ask the big questions.”
Unfortunately, the idea that theatre tickets are expensive tends to stick – prices can range from $35 per production to much more if you’re to attend a number during the year. This is not necessarily friendly to a student budget, but things are changing on that front.
Belvoir offers student rush tickets on Tuesday and Saturday matinees, subject to availability ($27 for full-time students). They also offer 30-down discounted subscriptions from $120 and have an agreement with Sydney University offering a variety of discounts. Sydney Theatre Company offer similar discounted prices to full-time students and under-30s, and have recently made a selection of tickets available for $20 for each performance through the Suncorp Twenties program which are released by phone and over the counter every Tuesday morning for the following week’s performances.
Here in Sydney theatre options are far and wide, and certainly not limited to the bigger companies mentioned above. Do your research – theatre can truly be as intimate and rewarding as a novel and as visually impressive as a film. Slotting in a play here and there (both day and night performances are common and can work around most student schedules) can be as easy as consuming other art forms or performances, and may well enrich the student experience. Figuring out what to see and what not to see is the question.