Unsettling rumors circulating throughout the theater community are starting to make theater employees and arts devotees alike wring their hands. Theater in Minnesota is rich, diverse and vibrant, yet college students aren’t filling their share of seats. Why isn’t the violence, political relevance and romance they usually crave luring them in? Thankfully, this conundrum has a simple explanation: College students don’t like theater.
Hold on! What rational reason could college students possibly have for not liking theater? The answer is none; rationality plays no role. Their distaste stems from a harsh cocktail of prejudice and misperception, a cocktail that students are all too adept at mixing. But their hasty judgments are understandable.
With hundreds of appeals coming at them every day from activities, clubs and activist groups, college students have adapted to making decisions quickly and effortlessly. Their immediate social scene plays a role too, since most of their friends don’t go to plays. The one who does is the outlier, and gloats incessantly—to the others’ dismay—over how many Broadway shows she’s seen.
Unsurprisingly, reversing the norm is a difficult feat. Getting college students to try theater, something they perceive is intended primarily for parents and rich people, means seeing through their eyes. First, consider students’ complex schedules. Family commitments, shaky relationships and weekend parties form the tip of the proverbial iceberg, while monstrous course loads and part-time jobs make up the menacing bulk underneath. College students are busy, and they think about that fact often. In order for them to voluntarily chisel a play into their iceberg-ian schedules, the process must simplify, not complicate, their lives.
Second, frame the show the way a student would frame a party. The message should connect with students on an informal level and tell them everything they need to know in advance. Get an invite list out on Facebook and depict the play as pure entertainment: Avoid the words “traditional” and “classic” at all costs. Strangers to theater have no frame of reference and are likely to misinterpret the above descriptors as “mundane” and “tedious.” Invite three times the number that can fit into the theater, since only a third end up coming anyway.
Most importantly, take out the guesswork. If a student doesn’t know the dress code or curtain time, they’ll drop the plans rather than call and ask. Finally, instruct them to bring friends, tickets and cash. That way they’ll at least feel prepared when venturing outside their comfort zone.
Speaking of cash, take note: College students are even poorer than they let on. When they confess to eating ramen noodles seven meals a week, few are exaggerating. And since theater productions aren’t a basic form of sustenance, getting them to commit what little money they have will take more than a generous discount on standard ticket prices. Adults may applaud $20 tickets, but that exceeds the average college student’s weekly budget. What’s more, even those with money to spare will hesitate.
Why? Do college students just intrinsically hate theater?
No, but they cringe at the thought of wasting money. They’d probably enjoy the show if they went, but what if they didn’t? Students won’t part with $20 on a gamble when they’re safer within the cost-effective confines of campus. They already know how to enjoy a cheap movie, and studying, though unappealing, is free and productive.
Rush ticket prices won’t cut it either; they’re a good deal, but they house too much uncertainty. No student will hazard the trip all the way to the theater with a date in tow only to risk a sold-out show. In the same vein, their friends won’t want to skip Saturday’s toga party for the “no-promises” chance to see Macbeth.
Students need to see the value as well as the affordability in any given deal, so offer them one made specifically for them. A coupon described to them as a “student price” would ring musically in their ears, and something as trivial as a free cookie during intermission would seal the deal.
Students, who’ll buy $400 in textbooks at one store versus another because the first offered $10 cash back, bite on these types of deals all the time. The more sympathetic the offer is with their emaciated wallets, the more students will justify putting forth the money.
With the right approach, the theater community might just be able to pull the best and brightest of tomorrow into the red velvet seats today. Such an endeavor takes nothing more, and no less, than the old college try.