In the last year, New York’s theatrical spotlight has been largely focused on the historic and timeless: Founding Fathers, fiddlers, even felines. But in the same year, a corner of that stage has been reserved for subject matter usually left to the niches of the small screen and the likes of Lena Dunham.
Three new plays—Josh Harmon’s Significant Other, Sofia Alvarez’s Friend Art and Lucy Teitler’s Engagements—all treat the young-adult experience with sophistication and empathy, encouraging a new generation of theatregoers while helping those theatrical newcomers to connect with more mature patrons, both onstage and off.
Millennials (people born between roughly 1980 and 1995) are often accused of self-absorption and entitlement. For a generation that associates adulthood with the dawn of social media, that navel-gazing image might be accurate but is also simplistic. Each of these three new works explores the complex twenty-something search for fulfillment in a world that’s told these same young adults they’re “special” through the eyes of a group of friends at various stages of creative success in Friend Art, a romantically hopeful gay man and his entourage of (progressively less single) female friends in Significant Other and a self-sabotaging English lit grad student in Engagements.
One theme all three shows explore is the dual nature of contemporary identity. With the pervasiveness of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, most young adults have two, if not three, versions of themselves—ranging from the public and curated to the private and sometimes secretly chaotic.
This theme of split, parallel identities is at the comic and dramatic core of Engagements, which makes use of characters’ inner monologues to show how spoken words and actions don’t reflect the complexity of internal decision-making, especially when we’ve trained ourselves to present only what’s most click-worthy.
At one point in Significant Other, protagonist Jordan agonizes over an email he’s sending to a coworker crush—he feels compelled to choose just the right words to convey the most appealing e-version of himself. Trip Cullman, director of Significant Other, says, “A lot of people can relate to that, whether you’re gay or straight: the nature of loneliness—specifically in NYC, as a twenty-something—that the show evokes.” Cullman believes such struggles, in their ridiculous-seeming self-obsession, hit close to home for audiences because they’re simultaneously funny and devastatingly real.
“There’s a focus on the small, kind of myopic private problems, because the bigger problems feel insolvable,” says Teitler, who penned Engagements. In the face of continuous (and continually visible) global crises—global warming, bankruptcy, violence and warfare—obsession with the personal can be interpreted as a response to fear rather than an indulgent pastime.
These shows also help to educate older theatregoers about the realities of being an “emergent adult” in today’s society. In Significant Other, main character Jordan’s homosexuality isn’t a plot point but simply a given circumstance that colors but doesn’t control the plot. That kind of normalizing, Cullman says, is radical for older audience members to see and reflect on.
While the subject matter of these shows encourages a younger set to buy a ticket, playwrights also have to contend with a fear of alienating the older subscriber-set. “Something that does surprise me is what a difficult time people still seem to have with a woman who’s doing what she’s not supposed to do,” says Teitler, speaking to older audiences’ mixed responses to morally dubious behavior in Engagements. Social climates have changed, and an older audience may need to warm up the head-on approach of modern playwrights.
However, the struggle to find professional or romantic success—set against the backdrop of the Big City—isn’t a new narrative. The timelessness of the need to self-define in a competitive, crowded place transcends era and age group. “In the number of young people who come to NYC pursuing something, who will stay and who will go is a story we’ve been seeing for longer than in our specific generation,” says Portia Krieger, who directed Friend Art. “The details change but the essential struggle stays the same,” says Alvarez, the play’s author. She sees commentary on the universal experience of dream-chasing and rerouting as necessary.
This search for self-actualization is a theme that can unite audiences, particularly at productions like these. “If you’re an older person sitting next to a younger person and you both laugh at the same joke, you’re more connected than before,” says Kimberly Senior, director of Engagements. Senior thinks of these shows as a chance to draw older and younger people together.
Even more exciting is the fact that these shows—and other shows like them—have the power to attract new ranks of theatregoers and, perhaps, the next generation of subscribers, a source of revenue and support that will be essential to the continued growth of New York theatre. According to the Roundabout, sales of HipTix—Roundabout’s young-audience ticket-discount program—were greater for Significant Other than for any of their previous off-Broadway productions.
“It behooves us to encourage a new generation of theatregoers, to tell stories that reflect the lives of the generation of theatregoers we’re hoping to cultivate,” says Cullman, who also says his career has been built around representing contemporary young-adult life in New York. Senior agrees, “When you’re going to theatre where the characters are [usually] wealthier or whiter than you, to see yourself represented on stage, and think, ‘I have that impulse,’ is very validating.”
Since young people, especially in New York, have near-endless entertainment opportunities, reflecting the young-adult zeitgeist is essential. Theatre is unique in its live, un-reproduceable essence—a point worth noting when marketing to a younger demographic. “You can’t put it on your queue; you were at the show and you saw it, or you’re not and you didn’t,” says Teitler, highlighting the singularity of theatre-going in an era when many evening plans revolve around a Netflix-and-chill mentality.
For an art form that can, at times, seem stuck in Grecian ruins and British gravesites, Significant Other, Engagements and Friend Art—and their theatrical ilk—represent theatre at its best: simultaneously specific and universal. Juggling demanding jobs, the murky waters of contemporary romance and the maintenance of social-media personas, young adults can find solace in relatable theatre while connecting with seasoned theatregoers, whose own experiences of creative pursuit, dashed dreams and the scariness of adulthood were not, however many years ago, so totally different.