TarGeting THE YOUNG
On the third Tuesday of every month, teenagers and young adults gather at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham for a jam session.
But it’s not pop, rock, or rap music they’re playing. It’s jazz, and the 20-year-old host is the draw.
Jesse Combs, a Framingham native and jazz performance major at the Hartt School in Hartford, oversees “Youth is Served,” which introduces young musicians and music-lovers to the magic of live performance by giving them a chance to listen to and play with someone who isn’t much older than they are.
“To host the jams is a great experience because, I mean, I am not a seasoned veteran,” said Combs, who takes turns with older, professional musicians at the weekly sessions at the Amazing Things center. “I’m still learning as much as anyone else.”
But young artists like Combs are exactly what Amazing Things and the region’s other performing arts centers are looking for as they try to secure their future amid an increasingly aging audience.
Some organizations, like the Arts Alliance in Hudson, are utilizing social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to market their events, meeting young audience members where they already are. Others, such as New Repertory Theatre in Watertown and Acme Theater Productions in Maynard, are trying to choose programming that will appeal to young adults, moving away from traditional theater and producing more provocative, alternative works.
And many offer student discounts on tickets and membership programs to make the arts more accessible to those without much disposable income.
“People, particularly young people, they’ve got home theaters, computers, busy lives, the Internet, and so much at their disposal that they haven’t been brought up as much with going out to the theater or a concert,” said Leland Stein, owner of the Regent Theatre in Arlington, which packs a crowd with the Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra. “It’s not like they’ll grow older and all of a sudden start liking live shows.”
Even in communities with strong high school theater programs, many young adults find that opportunities in the suburbs dry up after graduation. That is exactly what prompted the creation of Raven Mad Theatre Company of Newton.
Member Madeline Burrows, a theater student at Hampshire College, said the group initially formed because she and some friends wanted to continue doing theater after high school but did not like any of their summer theater options.
Burrows and three other Newton South High graduates are writing, producing, directing, and starring in “Dahl,” a liberal adaptation of the twisted children’s tales of Roald Dahl. This is their fourth summer working together, and the first time they are bringing their free production outside Newton, performing in a space at Green Street Studios in Cambridge.
“We’re making theater that we would want to see and that we’re passionate about,” said Tess Boris-Schacter, an acting and gender studies major at Bard College. “We wanted to make accessible, collaborative theater with friends without adult supervision, because we didn’t feel we needed it.”
Combs, too, says one of the biggest challenges of the suburban arts scene is to provide entertainment that is easily accessible.
“When you’re targeting a young audience, you have to keep in mind that there are a bunch of kids coming out to these things that aren’t able to drive yet or don’t have the financial means to feel good about buying a ticket every week,” he said.
Combs said that he has been trying to think of ways to make his jam nights worth it for his audience.
“I think that’s a challenge with all performing arts right now,” he said. At least with “Youth is Served,’’ he said, “it’s more interactive.”
Indeed, several area performing arts centers acknowledged that while baby boomers and young families come to their shows, attracting young adults requires creativity.
The Center for Arts in Natick “completely reinvented” its Young Masters classical music series to feature artists under 25, according to executive director David Lavalley, who said it’s a way that the center’s programming may appeal to all audiences.
Live performance “is much more powerful than sitting in front of a big-screen TV,” he said. Once someone enjoys this experience, Lavalley said, “they’re going to return.”
TCAN also hosts a folk and acoustic open-mic night every two weeks, and while the participants are mostly older musicians, 16-year-old Noah Denzer is a fairly regular exception.
“I don’t really have a lot of places to play as a kid,” the Norfolk teen said. “You know, I can’t play in bars.” But TCAN offers him a supportive and encouraging environment to test out his music.
“I’d absolutely recommend that to anyone,” Denzer said, “especially young people, who probably need that encouragement more than others.”
At Amazing Things, executive director Michael Moran decided Combs would bring the hard-sought high school and under-30 crowd to the jam sessions.
“He has been a great, great success and brought out a lot of young jazz players,” Moran said.
Laura E. Franzini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.