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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When Michelle Darden was a girl, her mother and godmother took her to the theatre as often as they could. Those moments mattered to her, and now, in partnership with Theatre Development Fund, she’s making sure that members of her community can have those moments, too.
Darden is a member of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and she’s the church’s liaison for New Audiences for New York, a TDF program that encourages theatregoing among those who don’t regularly attend live performances.
This season, over thirty groups (representing churches, schools, senior groups, and other organizations from all five boroughs) joined the first wave of New Audiences participants. They attended up to three Broadway productions, and they participated in pre- and post-show discussions that were moderated by a TDF teaching artist.
Many participants discovered their love for theatre. “When we started, I didn’t think it would be what it has become,” Darden says, “but we are having an extremely strong reaction. I heard a woman say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to start my grandchildren on Broadway.”
That woman’s response highlights the program’s purpose. It not only takes people to Broadway shows, but also helps them cultivate a theatre habit.
Of course, if it’s going to work, then New Audiences for New York must address the reasons that people don’t go to the theatre in the first place. Discussing her group, which includes members aged ten to eighty-two, Darden says, “This is an experience that not many of them have ever had. We’ve got five people in their sixties and seventies who have never been to the theatre, and it’s not because they didn’t want to go. It’s because they didn’t have the means.”
Cost, then, is a major issue. Broadway tickets often run over $100, and that can discourage many potential audience members. That’s why New Audiences for New York makes tickets available to groups---which may have between thirty and fifty members---at a discounted rate. And if group members cannot afford the discounted price, then TDF pays the difference.
This is partly why the performing arts school Purelements joined the program. Even though its students love the theatre, most cannot afford to go. Now, thanks to New Audiences, which is funded by the City of New York and the New York Theater Subdistrict Council, Purelements students have seen the musicals Memphis and West Side Story.
“The prices were always out of their reach, so this has been a remarkable opportunity,” says Lakai Worrell, Purelements’ co-founder. “It reinforces what they learn. They go to the show, and they see the things they do, but they’re on a higher level.”
Of course, price isn’t the only obstacle. Some people believe the theatre can’t speak to them because of their age, ethnicity, or economic status, and that’s an idea that New Audiences wants to challenge.
The pre- and post-show discussions are especially designed to give group members a forum for their ideas and responses. The St. Paul group has been talking about Memphis, which follows a white male DJ and a black female R&B singer in 1950s Tennessee. Weeks after seeing the show, church members are still approaching each other and shouting “hockadoo!,” the DJ’s catchphrase.
“It’s creating personal relationships outside the church,” Darden says.
And then there are the students from Green Chimneys, a safe haven for runaway and homeless LGBTQ youth: Robert Henderson, Green Chimneys’ recreation coordinator, initially wondered whether his group would care about the theatre at all. He certainly wasn’t expecting their response to Fela!, a musical about the activist and musician Fela Kuti.
“To me, the most interesting thing was what happened after the show,” Henderson says. “When the play ended, my group wanted to go to the library or the internet café so that they could get more information regarding Fela and his mother. I was impressed that my group of carefree teenagers was into something so strongly that they actually wanted to do research on it. As we left the play, my kids were singing and dancing in the streets.”
Henderson continues, “TDF allowed many people to be exposed to something rare. I strongly believe that the work TDF is doing is groundbreaking because they are showing everyone that Broadway is accessible.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor