If you are anything like me you are sick to death of the term “Emerging Artist”. Well, unfortunately, we all better get used to the word “Emerging” because a new term has been coined to describe the 20-something crowd and that term would be the “Emerging Adult”.
Sean (playwright for Prodigals) sent me an article back in August that appeared in the New York Times called “What is it about 20-Somethings?”. I was too busy back then to take the time to actually read it properly but I knew it was something I wanted to address because what this article discusses is at the very core of why I created Twenty-Something Theatre.
Back then I had no idea that the notion of “Emerging Adulthood” was even being discussed. All I knew was that as a 25-year old there were some things that I was going through in my life that were very specific to me and my friends and I had the idea to put on production that reflected our lives on stage. What became of that idea was our inaugural production of This Is Our Youth.
Reading this article on “Emerging Adulthood” and looking back at This Is Our Youth, I have a new appreciation for the play and the playwright because it appears that Mr. Lonergan was way ahead of his time. Lonergan wrote the play in 1996 yet Jeffery Jenson Arnett (the coiner of the term “Emerging Adult”) didn’t publish his first article on the subject until 2000 in the American Psychologist. Originally a fellow by the name Kenneth Keniston (what is with these scholars and their alliterative names) declared “a new stage of life” in the American Scholar in 1970 and he called it “youth”.
“In the late 60’s, Keniston wrote that there was a ‘growing minority of post-adolescents [who] have not settled the questions whose answers once defined adulthood: questions of relationship to the existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social role and lifestyle’.” And, moreover, among the many characteristics of “youth” the most important was a “pervasive ambivalence toward self and society”. If that doesn’t describe the characters in “This Is Our Youth” or a most of the characters we’ve explored throughout the past 5 year then I don’t what does.
So what does this new stage in development mean for theatre? Well, back in April, Aslam (Eliot in Prodigals) articulated in his guest blog post what I have believed for many years. I’m paraphrasing but he basically talked about how he views Twenty-Something Theatre as a continuation of the work done by TYA Theatres (Theatre for Young Audiences) such as Green Thumb Theatre or Carousel Theatre.
Erik Erikson (again with the alliteration) developed in 1950 a highly regarded life cycle model that is based on the 8 stages of human development: infant (0 – 1.5 yrs), toddler (1 – 3 yrs), preschool (3 – 6 yrs), school age (5 – 12 yrs), adolescence (9 – 18 yrs), young adulthood (18 – 40 yrs), mid-adulthood (30 – 65 yrs) & late-adulthood (50+). In 1966 the Young Peoples Theatre, now known as the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, was formed and is Canada’s largest TYA company. Carousel Theatre was formed in 1974 with Green Thumb following suit in 1975.
All three of these companies are dedicated to producing theatre for toddlers thru to adolescents which covers approx 18 years of life while the rest of the theatre-producing world generally targets the rest. The rest being what many like to refer to as the general theatre-going population - which with the average life expectancy in Canada being approximately 81 years - covers the next 63+ years of life. Doesn’t this seem a little odd to anyone else?
Even then these TYA Theatres break down their shows even further and specifically designate certain shows as being suitable for or appealing to a certain age bracket. For example, if you go to the LKTYP web page for their 2010-2011 season you will note that all the production are listed by date and then under the date the grade range. Or, Green Thumb has their 2010-2011 season of plays listed as either elementary or secondary. Why do they do this? Because it is a well known and accepted fact that a 5 or 6 year old has different needs then a 15 or 16 year old.
This may seem obvious to us now but the addition of a new stage in life called “Adolescence” only came into existence in 1904 when G. Stanley Hall published a massive study on the subject. Hall’s original book had its flaws but it “marked the beginning of the scientific study of adolescence and helped to lead to its eventual acceptance as a distinct stage of life with its own challenges, behaviours and biological profile”. Then recently Arnett began to believe that something similar was happening with those in their late teens and into their twenties and that Erikson’s model that defined “young adulthood” as between the ages of 18-40 might be too broad because “the 20’s are something different from the 30’s and 40’s”.
As the NY Times article discusses “The 20’s are a black box and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20’s move to a new residence every year. 40% move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of 7 jobs in their 20’s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 70’s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, 5 years in a little more than a generation.”
Furthermore, the article goes on to discuss how we’re in a “changing timetable for adulthood” because traditionally adulthood was marked by 5 milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. “In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men, had by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones” while according to data from the US Census among 30 year olds in 2000 “fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so”. Plus closer to home a Canadian study said that a “typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25 year old in the 70’s.”
Take me for example: I just turned 30 in June. I am not married nor do I find it likely that I will get married in the near future. I don’t have any children. And, I have definitely completed 2 of the 5 milestones: I completed school and I left home. I tentatively could say 3 out of 5, if at this point in my life I considered being an artist financially stable, but I’m just going to err on the side of cautious here and go with a good solid 2.5 out of 5. Wow, so according to this study, I’m not very “adult”. I’m actually approx 50% of an adult. You could call me a… wait for it… an “Emerging Adult”.
Henceforth I would like to be referred to in writing as “Sabrina Evertt, BFA, EAA” (EAA = Emerging Artist and Adult). Thank you.
Even though this milestone method of determining adulthood is a little dated (Really?! thank you for pointing that out NY Times writer Mr. Robin Marantz Hening) because it doesn’t include those who are single or childless by choice or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay (yet another reason why Canada rocks!); however, it is becoming increasingly clearer that getting to what is generally thought of as adulthood is happening later than ever. Psychologists and academics are all starting to believe that “what we’re seeing…is the dawning of a new life stage” and in the same way society adjusted to the emergence of “Adolesecence” society will also need to adjust to the idea of the “Emerging Adult”.
This includes creating theatre that speaks to a new generation of 20-year olds who have different needs now then they did a generation or two ago and why theatre for “Emerging Adults” in my opinion could be seen as the new TYA. And why, “Twenty-Something Theatre” is in many ways a continuation of the work that begins with theatres like Green Thumb or Carousel. It is about telling stories that address the needs and wants of a specific stage in life.
“Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls ‘a sense of possibilities’. A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20’s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it ‘the age 30 deadline’”.
I think Jennifer, who is quoted in the NY Times article (from her original article that appeared something called the “20 something Manifesto”), sums it up perfectly by saying “It’s somewhat terrifying… to think about all the things I’m supposed to do be doing in order to ‘get somewhere’ successful: ‘Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love and maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition,’ When is there time to just be and enjoy?” Many 20-somethings struggle to “figure it all out” and with all the options that we have today as opposed to a few generations ago its no wonder that many 20-somethings postpone “adulthood”.
So, it looks like, whether society likes it or not, “Emerging Adulthood” may just be here to stay and because of this we need to start thinking of ways in the theatre world as to how we can understand this new stage in life and adapt accordingly. Creating theatre companies like Twenty-Something Theatre that specifically targets that stage in life is one way but there are plenty more opportunities out there just waiting for forward-thinking theatre-makers to jump on.
I know, in the theatre world, we talk about “audience development” all the time and you might ask how this is any different. This is different because it comes at it from a different approach. It isn’t about sitting around dreaming up ways we can get young people into the theatre that already exists. It’s about creating theatre for young people that doesn’t already exist.
In the same way that TYA Theatres split up their programming to suit the needs of specific age or grade ranges that have different needs so too wouldn’t it make sense to create general theatre programming that targets specific age ranges or stages in life. I doubt anyone would disagree that a 20 year old is at a different stage of life than a 40 year old.
Or, theatre companies who have two stages could use their Studio stage (or “B” series of shows) for programming that is geared towards a “20-something” crowd. This doesn’t mean that all audiences won’t show up and enjoy it. It just means that you are being specific about who you are targeting and why.
Because, at the end of the day, in order to appeal to us 20-somethings (I say “us” even though technically I’m now a 30-something but only by approx 5 months) you are going to have to come to us because we definitely aren’t coming to you. We are too busy trying to “figure it all out” and “follow our dreams” and be “financially responsible” and “fall in love” and “maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition” (that includes alcohol, right?! Red wine is okay, right?!) all the while maintaining a healthy ambivalence and optimism towards the whole thing.
Wow, I’m exhausted just writing about it, so I’m going to go and put an end to this extremely long post because, well, looks like I've got stuff to figure out because I just hit that “age 30 deadline” and technically that means I should have it already figured out. Hmmmm…better get on that.
***Read the entire NY Times article here