Making Eye-Contact with Millennials: the ephemeral and the visceral

by Justin Maxwell

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Making Eye-Contact with Millennials: the ephemeral and the visceral

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

Theatre rarely prioritizes the things that it does best, which keeps millennials unaware that we offer them something they want. Last weekend I attended a play and a dance performance. At one event, the guy behind me tried to mansplain the value of Modernism to his bored date, and they didn’t return after the intermission. The second show was great. Midweek, I’ll sneak out to a staged reading, if I can keep my eyes open and still think straight after a day of reading student essays and plays. These three shows cost: 30$, 15$, and 0$, respectively. I’ll also spend forty-five minutes in my car, to and from the shows. Conversely, according to my mathematically perfect browser history, I watched 23 clips on YouTube, Fail Blog, Hulu, and Netflix in the 24 hours around the two shows from last weekend. These clips were all fundamentally free; they were all watched on my comfy couch with the company of my cat (who is indifferent to mansplaining); and they could be paused and returned to later. In fact, the first thing I started watching in that 24 hour timeframe was also the last thing I finished watching. That’s what my media consumption looks like, sans iTunes, Pandora, and text-driven sites like HowlRound and The Onion.

With all that media, I’m still a dedicated theater-goer. If I include dance and performance art, I see about a hundred shows a year. However, my world is not the world of my undergrad students. These young adults are a cadre of people desperate for what we have to offer. For my students, disconnection from social media sincerely represents an existential threat to their sense of self. For me, it’s a relief. For them, high quality entertainment is free and ubiquitous. They have no idea what theatre really is or what it is capable of. Moreover, students attending high school after No Child Left Behind, in 2002, receive unrelenting indoctrination into a culture of passivity and disengagement. Last year, I forced a class of thirty, non-major, university sophomores to attend any two shows at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. They were not expecting the art-party they encountered. They didn’t know such things existed. Two students described the event as the most important thing that happened in their life, but theirs is a culture of hyperbole. Many students disconnected from the class became abuzz after the experience. Even students who didn’t enjoy the work they saw, still became hungry for what theatre could offer. I hadn’t expected such good results; I didn’t realize how thirsty they really were after surviving our denuded k-12 educational system. The new audience is out there, but it doesn’t know we exist; it doesn’t know that what we do is possible, and it is trained not to look.

Direct human connection trumps all media promotion. Politics aside, part of the problem is our fault, few theatre makers (myself included) readily connect with millennials, and when we do, we don’t often deliver what they need. In promoting theatre, many of us try to cut through the noise of social media and entertainment with more noise and entertainment. Millennials need human connection and personal reference. One common reason students take my sophomore level elective in the first place is that their friends took it previously. Theatre makers, in my experience, highly value personal connection. Yet personal connection means more to millennials than it does for my generation—I’ll be 40 in June—and we struggle to understand how much millennials value that connection. As part of a stipend, one of my MFA playwriting students came to that sophomore class to promote our university’s study abroad program. When I asked him to promote his upcoming one-act play in a small local festival run by the Elm Theater in New Orleans, my undergrad students were quite impressed. They weren’t impressed by what the young writer said, but by his presence—a real person who made a real thing in the room with them. A rare treat in their electronic lives. More importantly, there were nine of my students in the audience on the night I attended the Elm’s festival, and a few more were turned away at the door. The festival did all the things one would hope a well-run festival would do to promote itself. Given that nine people in a 60 seat house were there because of an impromptu three to four minute talk, and probably twenty students total for the four day festival, the results of direct connection outweighed the rest of a traditional advertising campaign, which had zero penetration into the lives of my students. A little personal connection went a long way. They went to that play because they met the guy who wrote it. Similarly, at some point during the semester one or two students reveal having seen one of my plays, or being friends with someone who has, and this direct connection invariable increases class participation for the whole group, for a few weeks. The participation increases because their perception of me shifts from being some sanctioned “expert” (which means nothing to them) to being a guy who actually makes a thing like what they’re studying. They care more because there is suddenly a flesh and blood connection to the abstract material. The way to connect with the infinitely interconnected isn’t media, it’s the immediately human.

These students born and raised in the digital age (and educated in the contemporary American idiom) believe theatre to be the most sterile productions of Shakespeare, and maybe a little Ibsen, or some long-dead “Greek dude.” They don’t know the unique things our artistic genre is capable of; they don’t know why it isn’t film and tv. Unfortunately, too many theatre producers (or maybe theatre donors) don’t know either. Back in the 1950s, experimental film maker Maya Deren said that film makers should leave stories for the dinosaur of theatre because film could jump across time and space, a footstep could start in an asphalt parking lot and come down in a meadow. She understood the unique thing about her genre. Unlike Hollywood, Deren ignored film’s ability to be monetized. That monetization has lead film to become the dominant place of storytelling and narrative convention, which is well-explored in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Pay’s the Thing: Playwrights Find a Lifeline in Television.” Like Deren, Banksy is successful as a visual artist because Banksy understands what that genre can do. Banksy knows that simple, well-placed visual images can cause us to re-see a piece of urban landscape and its socio-cultural context. I rarely see theatre that emphasizes the most-unique elements of the things that only we can do. Both Banksy and Deren succeed because they understand the core aesthetic problem for an art-maker is in creating an experience unique to the artistic idiom.

The best theatre is ephemeral. Miss it, and it’s gone. If you miss the next production of Hamlet in your city, what are the odds you never see Hamlet again? Hamlet is not ephemeral. The Neo-Futurists every changing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is ephemeral. If you miss it this weekend, it’s gone. It won’t be the same next weekend; if you go once a month you’ll never see the same show.

The best theatre is visceral. It is of the physical body being in a physical space. The NOLA Project, here in New Orleans, staged a processional retelling of Alice in Wonderland in a large art museum’s sculpture garden. Audience members could follow one of three characters. And in following, space, location, and the body (of both audience and performer) became intrinsic to the performance. Plus, since there were three paths, many audience members attended three times. Similarly, Aztec Economy performed Butcher Holler Here We Come at the New Orleans Fringe Festival several years ago, and the performance lit a small space exclusively with headlamps worn by the actors. Performers were always within a few feet of an audience member. At one point an actor was running and shouting. He turned off his headlamp, plunged the whole room into darkness, and I could hear him working for breath somewhere very near me. It was a moment of unique tension tied directly to our real, physical bodies. No other genre can do that.

It is well past time to stop focusing on story as our primary artistic element. Stories happen easily on television. There’s damn good tv that tells stories. They’ve got it covered. Conversely, we need to avoid physical spectacle without substance or we fall from art into entertainment. The arts-y looking Cirque du Soleil already dominates one end of that spectrum, and the NFL dominates the other end. We need to prioritize giving our audiences three things: Give personal, give intimate, give immediate.

Millennials don’t come to the theatre because they don’t know what we can do, and we don’t tell them eye-to-eye. When they do come, we often give them what they can get on television. We’ve set ourselves up to compete with television and film. We can’t. We shouldn’t. The problem is that too many theater makers sincerely believe they do the things I’ve been talking about. They do not. We need to offer new work, written within the last five years, ten at the most. We need to do work that’s not being done within 250 miles of us. We need to do work by living authors, who live in our city. We need to avoid work that is primarily about a character that wants something. Make breaking these rules a conscious choice, not a habit.

If I were an ambitious young producer who wanted to attract millennials to an upcoming show, I’d first make sure my online presence was sharp—ready to reserve tickets, offer clear information across social media platforms, and have a web page that is actually user friendly and up-to-date (this second-to-date, not this season-to-date). Then I’d reach out to every college professor within a reasonable drive that might be teaching a class on theatre. I’d find the ones amenable to having the writer, director, or a lead actor come in and talk to the students. Then I’d send folks off to meet the classes and talk about the show, offering students what discounted tickets I could. While such networking is initially labor intensive, the connection is made for the next show, and the next, and the next. Millennials desperately need to look us in the eye, and the classroom is one of the few places where they still physically congregate.

Justin Maxwell’s An Outopia for Pigeons was recently performed by Swandive Theatre in Minneapolis and The Shadowbox Theatre in New Orleans, as well as staged readings around the country. In 2015, Outopia will get a full production with The Underground Players in Wisconsin. Justin’s collaboration with the dance company Mad King Thomas, “The Weather Is Always Perfect,” premiered at The Walker Art Center’s Minnesota Sculpture Garden last July. His prose has appeared in various journals, including Contemporary Theatre Review, American Theatre Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Minnesota History, Minnesota Playlist, and others. Justin works as an assistant professor in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans.


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • MmeMagpie

    I thought of Too Much Light, even before you mentioned it :) I’ll be 40 in July.

  • Cate Baym

    I’m a “millenial,” and this is on point. Somewhat tangentially, have you ever heard of ASMR? It comes to mind for me because I’m actually writing an article for my own blog about it, and I think it’s one of the very bizarre results of exactly the kind of lack of physical contact that you’re talking about. Essentially, ASMR videos star young, beautiful woman who stare into the camera–simulating eye contact–and either whisper or use props to make noises intended to stimulate a (non-sexual) visceral response in the viewer–often sleepiness or relaxation. In other words, they’re attempting to recreate, via YouTube video, the type of intimacy and human connection that is such an important part of live theater, along with other types of “IRL” physical interactions, and these types of videos get hundreds of thousands or even millions of views.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for mansplaining theatre.

  • Joseph

    Sorry, but no. Point by point: First, millennials don’t think of Shakespeare and Ibsen as sterile; they ASSUME it, because it is taught to them as literature (if it is taught to them at all) and not as performance. Most of them wouldn’t know Ibsen if he hit them with a baseball bat, because nobody does Ibsen any more (certainly at the college level), and productions of Shakespeare are hobbled by half-baked director’s “concepts” that deaden all of his humor and heart. Second, of course “Hamlet” is ephemeral. Miss a performance of “Hamlet”, or a production, and you have missed THAT “Hamlet”. It will never come again. It is no different than “Too Much Light” in that respect. This notion that some theatre is more important than other theatre simply by nature of its construct is what has turned off audiences from the notion that theatre can be a mainstream experience. And third, I don’t see TV creating stories as good as “Hamlet” (or “Fences” or “The Skin of Our Teeth”). Different stories, yes. Better? No–not even “Justified” or “Better Call Saul” tell a story as well as August Wilson did. Good theatre doesn’t compete with television, because it doesn’t–and shouldn’t–do what television does (the movies made the mistake of competing with television in the 1950′s, with terrible results). When we talk about making theatre more of something it isn’t (a social media event, an experience that can’t be shared with other audience members, or crafted by diletantes and amateurs) we are watering down the experience to the point where we get articles like this, well-meaning but wrong headed. Sorry, but no.

  • linuxlinus

    I think there’s strong evidence that Millenials like clear stories than almost any group of people in centuries. This post is 100% ass backwards.

  • Kathleen Warnock

    I still can’t get over putting the dollar sign after the price in the first paragraph. Is that some kind of subtle protest or simply not paying attention to how currency is written in the US?

  • amsam


  • kw

    Yes, really. As a reader, I tend not to trust writers who make basic mistakes in form and usage.

  • roy

    Will Millennials attend unknown performances of works they are not familiar with? Maybe Millennials in large metropolitan areas will. What about smaller markets?

  • Craig jacobrown

    Many of my audiences are millenials… but I’ve been doing the work far too long to be able to claim to be one. I appreciate the millenial perspectives. I’m currently evolving away from live to online short films and I know I’ve already begun to attempt to articulate for myself why I have to keep one foot onstage as these films attract the young guys to my websites. Actually, I’ve never really been concerned for the future of either my live or online theatre because I stage/film puppetry/articulated sculpture performances. Puppets were present at the origin of theatre and will definitely still be there at the demise of theatre- it’s a fundamental building block. The nature of bringing an object to life with the power of human muscles attached to a human heart/brain will always be qualitatively different from a film presentation of puppetry. Films such as ‘Box Trolls’ can provide further inspiration to fine art sculptors such as myself to work with other renown sculptors to tell stories with our transformation masks and body puppets on film. CG can’t do it, stop motion can only highlight the awe and beauty of sculpture not theater, but sesame street is still the cutting edge of human powered puppetry on TV and film… otherwise we are simply watching a live puppet show on film. This is all just my long-winded way of supporting Justin’s idea; as a performer and puppeteer my work, at best, feels like a ceremony I can only hope is as deeply moving to others gathered for the event as it is for me. The real question is ‘What kind of rituals will bring in the next group of Millenials?’ As the producer/performer it’s my job to ‘stage’ it even if my bottom line requires great language, great music, great visual art and great movement no matter where we show up.

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