With young people now preferring to stay at home – where world-class entertainment is at their fingertips, many argue that theatre feels irrelevant, says Zest Theatre’s Toby Ealden. So how can we get them involved?
At a time when the government is reducing opportunities for young people to attend the theatre or an arts event through education, it has never been more important or challenging for young people to experience all that our sector has to offer.
If current policies remain in place, we will have to rely less on teachers and their school groups to populate our audiences, and start making an effort to attract young people as individuals and ticket buyers in their own right. But to do that, we need to understand that many of our preconceptions about young people are wrong and start making work they want to see.
Generation Z – born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s – are stereotyped as the FOMO (fear of missing out) generation. But this is a better description of millenials, the generation before, who see staying at home as boring. For Gen Z the opposite is true. Thanks to their phones, those who fall within Gen Z are constantly connected, so having time when they are not interrupted is precious. Youth-trend analysts are seeing a rise in JOMO instead – the joy of missing out.
Recent research from Youthsight found one in five 16 to 24 year olds would choose attending an event such as live music or theatre as their ideal evening with friends. The biggest group (46%) chose Netflix and a takeaway. With Deliveroo, Uber Eats and binge-able TV all accessible through their phones, being at home has never been so good.
So, how can theatre compete? Well, we have to compete with home. We need to offer exciting visceral experiences and give young people some of the human contact they’re craving.
Doesn’t theatre already do that? Not according to the vast majority of young people we meet. For many, theatre is boring and completely irrelevant to their lives. What young people want from theatre is the same thing they want from society in general: to be acknowledged.
Next month, Zest Theatre will embark on the national tour of our new show, Youthquake. It was researched through an eight-week process of 53 workshops, with more than 800 young people, across 11 cities. In my 16 years of working with young people in theatre, I have never seen these levels of low mental health, anger, political awareness and frustration in teenagers. This is why theatre seems so irrelevant to them, because there is so much other stuff happening to them. Many of Gen Z feel as though they are on the brink and that no one is listening, understanding or caring.
Young people want theatre that includes them in the creative process, gives them a voice in the narrative and acknowledges their presence in the performance space rather than hiding them behind the fourth wall.
A great example of this would be the Paper Birds’ production of Ask Me Anything, an immersive and intimate piece set in a multitude of teenage bedrooms that sees theatremakers become agony aunts. To develop the show, the Paper Birds asked teenagers to write to them and ask them anything – nothing was off limits. The show looked at what young people can learn from the life experience of millennials and more importantly, what teenagers could teach the adult world.
Another company doing good work is the incredible 20 Stories High, which develops theatre directly with young people from excluded communities. Its community-focused practice adds a rich, authentic and heartfelt dynamic to its work to build new audiences regionally, nationally and internationally.
Young people want a chance to feel connected. Here’s how: first, you need to stay on the forefront of youth culture by co-creating with them. Offer a platform, encourage open discussion and then shut up and listen. It is important to remember that young people are ‘done to’ for most of their daily lives. If you want to really engage them, then don’t be another person that’s ‘doing to’ and place yourself as a person ‘doing with’ or ‘doing for’. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. What’s needed will vary across the country and even within communities. If you want to make theatre they will like, then make it with them.
Second, this isn’t just about narrative, it’s also about pace. If we’re really going to compete with Netflix, then pace in both writing and direction is key. Think of the speed of storytelling of all those bingeable Netflix series. We need to be brave in cutting between timelines and settings and flow between contrasting emotions. Gen Z has the darkest and most hilarious sense of humour, but those young people also face real emotional challenges. Use that experience to tell your stories and make your shows.
Third, Gen Z values authenticity. So if you’re putting young characters on the stage, you have to make sure your dialogue sounds like them, not how you spoke when you were a teenager. But to do this you need to act fast. The hottest viral memes become ‘dead memes’ within days, so we need to use fresh references, slang and colloquialisms that they actually use today. Youth culture moves fast, so this might mean the script needs a mid-run refresh.
Finally, don’t be afraid of being eclectic in your work by mixing up genres, media and form to create a real experience they can be a part of.
The restrictive definitions of culture from older generations don’t apply anymore. I wrote a piece in The Stage two years ago explaining that young people are less likely than older people to distinguish between ‘arts and culture’ and other activities in their leisure time by labelling pursuits.
That was the case back in 2017 and it’s even more relevant today. Theatre made for young audiences needs to address this or we run the risk of falling behind. In the case of Youthquake, we have made a production that’s part show, part TED Talk and part party. We need to create work that generates visceral reactions and creates new, eclectic experiences.
While its struggle is very real, Gen Z is nothing short of inspirational. The young people are refreshing, resilient, insightful, hilarious and incredibly smart, even if they don’t always realise it yet. Our job as theatremakers is to help them to discover all of this, in their own words, and beat the JOMO.
Toby Ealden is Zest Theatre artistic director. For more information go to: zesttheatre.com