In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Millennials will crowd bars on weekend nights but going to the theater doesn't make a dent. (PHOTO: flickr.com)

Theaters struggle to find a way to attract millennials to their audience

We are building them luxury apartments by the dozens.

We are creating festivals and special events and we stage meet and greet gatherings so they can network.

Everybody wants them but nobody is quite sure how to get their attention and hold it.

And the world of live theater is, just like everybody else, wondering how to capture the attention of the millennials.

Each season I see somewhere around 90 to 100 plays, all varying in subject and quality and experience, but all of them having one thing in common: Most of the audiences are on the older side.

Gray hair is the color of the night.

Everybody I know who runs a theater company is agonizing over how to get people in their 20s and 30s to put live theater in their entertainment buckets.

Running a theater company is not a pathway to riches. It's a difficult business and profit margins, when there is a profit, are narrow. Having one show in a season bomb can be a dangerous setback which may threaten the very existence of a company.

There are four areas of the city that are jammed on weekend nights with thousands of young people, having fun, spending money, sipping or guzzling drinks, eating food and generally recreating.

Thousands of revelers crowd into the bars and clubs on Water Street, Old World Third Street, the Jefferson/Milwaukee Street area and Bay View. They are all spending money and time. And it makes me wonder why they don't spend money and time on live theater.

There have been studies and research conducted on this elusive group of young people but they are a complicated bunch and strumming their strings is a difficult process.

For one thing they aren't nearly as financially well-off as people think. Many of them are burdened with student debt. While some have found decent-paying jobs in occupations that demand extended education, many of these millennials have entry-level jobs with entry-level pay. Finally, because they want to live Downtown, they spend an inordinate amount of their money on living expenses.

So, it would seem that economics plays a role in the failure of this demographic to become part of the audience in live theater. That might lead companies to develop some more flexible pricing options based on age. Student tickets are normally plentiful but what if you are done with school and you're 29 years old and married? The idea of discounted tickets can be a conflicting one but I've always thought a seat filled for $1 is better than an empty seat.

More than cost, however, is the fact that I just don't think live theater is a thought for young people who are planning their entertainment. How to make it so is a constant question for theater groups.

I have a couple of ideas that may be helpful, and I'm going to suggest that the United Performing Arts Fund expand activities to encourage more participation in the arts and not just raise money.

Information is a key element in the lives of young people. Social media, on laptops and smartphones, is one of the most consistent parts of their lives, for both experience and planning purposes.

I would like to see UPAF create an annual schedule of performing arts in Milwaukee. But not your ordinary schedule. These are extraordinary young people and you need something extraordinary to attract them.

Don't just list the name and time and place of performances. Instead give us a detailed paragraph or two explaining what the play is about, what the dance is themed, the history of the music. The other piece of advice is to make sure the descriptions are in plain English, not written by or for theater sophisticates.

There's an old saying in Silicon Valley aimed at startups. "If you can't explain it to a second-grader, you aren't ready to explain it."

The same may well hold true for this kind of effort to lure more young people into the theater. Make it plain, make it attractive and spread it around on social media. I know hardly anybody who reads real mail anymore and certainly not flyers or bulk mail. Social media should be at the top of the marketing plan for theaters, and maybe then they will be able to attract more young people.

I have long been convinced that if you can get someone into the live theater to see a play or a musical, you stand a pretty good chance of making them ticket buyers for life.

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