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"Let’s be frank … Theatre can be really expensive"

Engaging a youthful and diverse audience might not be a priority for all theatre companies, but perhaps it should, argues Playwave creative Nicole Pingon.

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If Art Really Is So Powerful, Why Aren’t More Young People Engaging With It?

Date: 26 Mar 2018

Young people are constantly told they’re ‘the future of change’.

There’s this unspoken expectation to do brilliant things, outshine past generations, and make our world a better place.

As a young person, I have to say it. That’s a lot of weight on our shoulders.

We’re frequently criticised for being a ‘lazy’, ‘uncultured’, ‘technology-obsessed’ generation, while also feeling this immense pressure to generate future change.

Double standards, right?

If Australia really wants to foster game-changers, show us what the world has to offer beyond a school setting. We need to be exposed to new and unconventional ways of thinking.

And what better way than through art?

Why? Because art has the potential to change lives, and anyone invested in the arts already knows that. Yet the only art most young people encounter during our ‘formative years’ is six consecutive years of Shakespeare.

Don’t get me wrong – Shakespeare is great – but for many of us, the only takeaway from school is that a) Art = Shakespeare; and b) there’s absolutely no future for those who want to pursue a career in the arts.

Yeah, it sucks.

We over-analyse Shakespeare’s 17th Century concerns, and how his ‘universal ideas’ are integral to us today. But if the purpose of studying Shakespeare is to teach us about ourselves, why not just directly expose young people to art that reflects our current world, culture and values?

There’s an incredible emergence of new-Australian artists, whose work, more often than not, tackle the issues of today, with an immediacy that confronts us for how close it hits home. It opens up minds, sparks conversation and inspires change. And that’s why art needs to diversify its audiences to include those it will have the greatest impact on: young people.

If we aren’t acquainted with a world outside a school setting, how are we expected to become well-rounded humans, let alone creators of change?

Take theatre for example.

The very nature of theatre forces us to engage with ideas in real-time and in a public space. It’s a total empathy workout, connecting us to perspectives we may never come by in everyday life. It’s an effective life-teaching tool, and it’s actually enjoyable.

If art really is so powerful, why aren’t more young people engaging with it?

Let’s be frank … Theatre can be really expensive.

There are clear financial barriers that block many from the arts. Most self-sufficient teenagers have incomes that just scrape above the legal minimum for a casual employee, and no matter how much we want to put ourselves out there, what can we do if we simply can’t afford to see anything?

This is a barrier the Playwave initiative is actively seeking to break down. Playwave aims to connect young people to the arts, by giving us access to experiences at a price point we can afford. This has allowed the audience of Sydney’s arts and culture to reach beyond theatregoers, reviewers, artists and friends of artists.

It has opened the doors to future artists.

Playwave has created an inclusive space, making us more aware of what’s on, and allowing us the opportunity to open ourselves to ideas beyond what we’re taught in school. By consuming all kinds of art, not just art targeted towards a youth audience, we can foster our development into more critical, culturally literate and well-rounded members of the community.

It’s an incredible reminder that our voices are actually valid, and we have the ability to share it with the world. We become inspired to create art. To create change.

If someone told me a year ago that I would be seeing a live performance fortnightly, I honestly wouldn’t have believed it.

For so many young people, there’s an ingrained idea that ‘the arts just isn’t my thing,’ and it makes sense, because it’s not exactly easily accessible.

For those of you who are engaged in the arts, ask yourself: how did you become involved in the arts? If you didn’t know people interested in the arts, would you still be where you are today?

Playwave has allowed lots of my friends to immerse themselves in the world of theatre for the first time, and allowed me to witness their awe as spellbinding new worlds unfold in front of them, in ways they didn’t expect. One of the best things about Playwave, is getting to share ephemeral experiences with people my age, bouncing off each others excitement, and sharing our perspectives on the train home.

Without a doubt, whenever I see shows with my friends, we’re the youngest in the theatre. And honestly, I get a bit of a kick out of seeming more mature than I am; doing classy, adult things. Most of the time in foyers, we’re greeted with smiles and it’s great. But occasionally we get strange looks, and I can never quite figure out why.

Is it our age, ethnicity, or simply the fact that we’re a bit under-dressed for the Sydney Opera House? But then I remind myself that it shouldn’t matter.

Because art is for everyone, isn’t it?

The crowd’s demographic is always closer to that of my parents, and inevitably there’s an underlying feeling that we don’t quite belong. To most young people, theatre audiences seem to be exclusively white, older and rich, often leaving us feeling unwanted in the space. The fact is, art is hardly ever marketed to young people, even when I feel like a production speaks to the heart of Sydney’s youth.

Engaging a diverse audience might not be a priority for all theatre companies, but perhaps it should. If we really want to push for an exciting future in the arts, shouldn’t theatres be PACKED with young people?

What will the future of the arts be, if the youngest person in the theatre is almost always the artist? Young people want to experience art. We need to. If young people are going to be the future of change, it’s about time we begin to learn about our world from new perspectives.

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