Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Defense of Millennials

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

The dust has settled from the latest embarrassingly naïve post Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser slapped together for his HuffPo blog, but many in the theatre community are still burning with curiosity over how a man who clearly has very little understanding of the contemporary arts scene and even less understanding of young audiences has become the head of one of the most prominent arts organizations in the world and has been handed millions of dollars to program for Millennials.

If you want to see what I’m on about, the latest in a string of tone-deaf Kaiser posts can be found here.

You can read the best of the crop of eloquent, well-informed smackdowns here, here and here.

Michael Kaiser is, like me, a former opera singer. Unlike me, he didn’t leave opera for theatre, but for—what else?—business. He promoted himself as a “turnaround king,” taking huge, lumbering arts organizations on the brink of beaching themselves and making them profitable. Evidently, he’s damn good at it.

I have nothing against business people. My father ran a small business my entire life. I do, however, question the wisdom of allowing a business guy with little experience in the arts a national sounding board with which to discuss what is wrong with the arts. He displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the contemporary arts scene and the topic of young theatre audiences. (Need more proof?)

Apart from the boringly obvious—old guy popping off about what assholes young people are, an activity old guys have enthusiastically enjoyed since Ancient Greece—there’s a much bigger issue on the table here. Kaiser is asserting definitional authority over what is and is not important in our culture. And what’s playing at the Kennedy Center this season? Follies, at $45 - $150 a ticket. What else is playing there? I’m so glad you asked. Shear Madness. Wicked. Next to Normal. Uncle Vanya. Les Miserables. Billy Elliott. La Cage aux Folles. Memphis. The Addams Family. I’m certain these are all excellent business decisions. I know that many of these pieces are wonderful works of art that deserve a place on stage. But they are not, by anyone’s measure, comprehensively reflective of what’s currently happening in American theatre, nor are they reflective of what would be, by any theatre professional’s standard, critical for (ugh) “culture IQ.”

Do not define for me what we, as artists, should deem culturally important while simultaneously displaying, in multiple ways, your complete ignorance about the current state of the arts. Yes, opera is important, musical theatre is important, but so is the art that’s currently being created, in an explosive burst of creativity all over the country, by these very Millennials you seem to think need your artistic guidance. Stop talking and start watching. Their art is everywhere, and a lot of it is glorious, brilliant and breathtaking. All you need to do is look.

Here’s another idea: stage the Millennials' work! Put your considerable millions where your mouth is. Why don’t you pull one or two of the titles on your mainstage that everyone has already seen six times at a community theatre and replace them with a new work by a young playwright? You have the money. Why not take a risk and stage something new? If you purport to want to increase your under-40 audience, as well as foster the new generation of artists, why don’t you stage their work? Is Follies really more important for “culture IQ” than a world premiere by Steve Yockey, Young Jean Lee, or Marcus Gardley? What are those Millennial Project millions for? John Legend and OK Go? Really?

All of this begs the question: Why is someone like Michael Kaiser, who has likely never even heard of Young Jean Lee, being given a national media platform, a million dollar salary (no lie), control over one of the most prominent arts organizations in the world, and millions of dollars of federal funding? The answer is depressing, and simple: Because we, as a culture, think business people should be in control of every damn thing. This is their cultural moment. Eventually, it’ll pass, and we’ll put education back in the hands of educators, arts back in the hands of artists and music back in the hands of musicians, but it’s not going to happen while we’re listening to people like Michael Kaiser tell us what should and should not be culturally and artistically important.

There’s no shame in being a businessman who knows a lot about making an arts org profitable without knowing a lot about the arts. There is, however, a careening truckload of shame in standing on a soapbox to chastise an entire generation for being artistically ignorant when the real issue is your own ignorance.

Young artists: seize control of the narrative! In other words: Keep doing what you already do. There are many of us who see you.

Michael Kaiser: Leave your office and go to an arts event that doesn’t have valet parking.

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