by Stephen Sachs
There hasn’t been that much rapturous cheering in Madison Square Garden since the Knicks won their last championship in 1973. But the thunderous hollering heard this Wednesday at the sold-out arena was not for a basketball game. It was for a play.
On Wednesday, 18,000 middle and high school students from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island attended a free one-time special performance of the Broadway production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden arranged by producer Scott Rudin, the MSG organization and the city of New York. That’s right. 18,000 kids sat and watched a 3-hour drama in the cavernous home of the Knicks. Who would have thought it possible?
The result? By all accounts, everyone there on that school-day afternoon – actors, audience, organizers – have been forever changed by the experience. And, I hope, so has our field, as the impact of this one-time event ripples nationwide for years.
Artistic Directors like me have been wringing our hands over the same question for decades. How do we get younger audiences to come to our theatre? How do we engage young people today in our ancient art form? How do we not only hold their attention but excite them enough to want to come back to our theatre?
This week, one answer came. And it showed me that maybe we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question. Sometimes we must bring the mountain to Muhammed.
The play’s usual Broadway home is the Shubert Theatre, where it commands an average ticket price of $162. The one-time performance at The Garden was free. For many kids, they were seeing a professional play – in an unusual setting — for the first time.
“This is a one-of-a-kind event — 18,000 young people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to see a Broadway play are going to be introduced to American theater,” playwright Aaron Sorkin said.
In a week of nothing but bad news for our country, this gives me hope. And shatters a few myths theater-makers may hold about young people.
The attention span of teens is too short. The myth we keep telling ourselves is that the light-speed tempo of video games have accelerated the viewing habits of young people to such a degree that they’ll never sit still for a serious play. A musical, maybe. A rock musical, certainly. Not an issue-driven drama. But the 18,000 students at Madison Square Garden not only sat still and listened to “Mockingbird”, they were riveted in their seats.
Young people are only interested in contemporary stories about themselves. It’s okay to offer them hip hop plays, urban musicals, modern teen comedies about their world today. A drama from another time period? Too risky. This week, however, a multitude of students from New York were engrossed by a fable that takes place in 1934 Alabama. Want to make it worse? It’s a play adapted from a book they are assigned to study as homework in class, for crying out loud. A theatre producer’s nightmare, right? Wrong.
Young people hate theatre. Not true. They just have fewer opportunities to see it. And when they do? “It’s so exciting,” said high school junior Michelle Hernandez. “It’s amazing,” said student Justine Jackson. “The story is very real and you can relate it to modern society,” said junior Andy Lin. “Specially racism because it’s still going on.” The 18,000 students were clearly swept up in the play and the excitement of the event. The setting of Madison Square Garden seemed to set them free to react openly in ways they would never dare in a conventional theatre. They laughed, they gasped, they shouted, and they cried. They cheered Atticus Finch like he was a rock star.
Regional theaters across the country have educational outreach programs that include bringing their productions of plays to schools for students to enjoy and benefit by seeing. It’s a failsafe strategy that is not going anywhere. A theatre importing its production to a school campus is one thing. Partnering with Madison Square Garden is another.
The conventional model of bussing students to your theatre holds its own many benefits. But I hope the “Mockingbird” event inspires theater organizations across the country to think outside the box in their own community. To explore unconventional venues and unique partnerships to help bring the power of theater to young people nationwide.
Could the “Mockingbird” event happen in Los Angeles? Can we imagine 20,000 students from across the Southland coming to Staples Center to watch a performance of “Death of A Salesman”? Why not? It takes a mayor, a theatre producer and a city believing that it’s important and willing to make it happen. As NY Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “The only way to change your world is if you decide it is your world to change.”
And you must find like-minded partners who are willing to change it.
Stephen Sachs is the Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.