What Is GenZ Theatre?

Editor’s Note: As we continue to see article after article about how theatre is in a crisis, Rescripted has been seeking the generative opinions of our local and national community. When Genevieve pitched this piece about GenZ theatre I was elated, because theatre is so often stereotyped as being for older people. This smart and funny piece offers insights into the gap theatre may feel with this generation. For years, I wrote about my visions for the American theatre, and now I get to amplify yours. To get in on the discourse, pitch us at rescriptedreviews@gmail.com. 

What is GenZ Theatre?

GenZ theatre is all TikTok dances and jokes about suicide, right? Yes and no. Although viral moves and dark humor overshadow most of my generation’s reputation, it is not all we have going for us. My name is Genevieve and I was born in the spring of 2000 (yes, I know). In 2023 as an early-career theatre maker and administrator in Chicago, IL, I am constantly working with and surrounded by other GenZ theatre artists. American GenZ theatre is unique and, more importantly, it deserves your attention and resources.

What Makes Us So Different?

According to the Strauss-Howe generational theory, GenZ, or people born between 1996-2012, are the next “artist” generation. Artist generations are also known as adaptive generations because they were born into a time of great social and political danger, and came of age during a time when conformist and socialized values were reinstated.

GenZ came of age in the wake of 9/11 and the 2008 recession, under one of the most conformist administrations in recent history, followed by a global pandemic. All generations produce great artists of their own, but growing diversity, the internet, and increased education make GenZ a strong force for change in theatre and the country.

The American GenZ population is more ethnically and racially diverse than any other generation in history and is projected to become majority non-white by 2026 (US Census). They consistently make strides in the fight for disability rights. Additionally, The Washington Post reported that 1 in 6 GenZ adults identify as LGBTQ+. Members of my generation are also more demanding in government intervention and progressive legislation, and less likely to view the U.S. as superior to other nations.

To set some perspective, the original internet phone was released in 1996 and the first iPhone was released in 2007. GenZ does not remember a time without smartphones. It has influenced the way we play, learn, socialize, eat, love, and hate. Growing up, we were learning what life in the age of the internet meant at the same time our parents were. We are no strangers to boundless information being both a blessing and a curse.

GenZ is predicted to be the most educated generation yet. A large part of that is due to the access to education technology provides. We cannot hide from information, as the internet is constantly reminding us that the systems in place continue to fail us. However, increased education also means that we can gather information faster and connect with each other to fight these issues together.

Life Reflects Art, Art Reflects Life

All of these differences are reflected in the art produced by this generation. Here are a few ways GenZ life and art reflect one another:

    1.  Art is activism. Because GenZ holds the government and individuals accountable for their actions, the stories we see are often tied to political and social action that is tangible in the community.
    2.  The allowance of separation between art and artist is shrinking because there is no room to be silent. Not saying something, says everything. The #metoo movement is only one example of this. We want to hold people accountable for their actions even if they make something beautiful.
    3.  We understand that the attention of an audience is too valuable to waste. Immediate gratification is something this generation expects, but they can also do without if they choose.
    4.  Anti-racism is active and ongoing. Woe-is-me-white-man-realism produced by equally woe-is-me white men has saturated the industry for far too long. As leadership grows in diversity, the content will shift. Beyond representation, structures and systems are changing. Look to young activist groups like Good Kids Mad City or youth leaders of Landback as examples.
    5.  Trans rights are human rights. The political right has chosen trans youth as a target for their fight with the left. GenZ understands a duty to protect those who are most vulnerable and therefore uplifts art that celebrates trans artists, trans history, and trans rights.
    6.  Ableist systems must be dismantled and rebuilt. In recent years it is much more common to see ASL-interpreted performances, better ADA seating, sensory-monitored performances, closed captioning, pay-what-you-can rates, and accommodations for late arrival. Future generations will continue to expand the definitions of accessibility, and more broadly, diversity, in ways that haven’t even been invented yet.
    7.  GenZ theatre preserves resources. We reserve fiscal resources due to the impact of the recession, the student debt crisis, our age, and other generational and systematic factors. We also preserve physical resources in an attempt to be less wasteful and decrease our carbon footprints. Eco-consciousness is part of our identity.
    8.  Technology is integrated everywhere. Marketing, projections, multimedia, VR, streaming, Artificial Intelligence, social media, etc. All of this and more is a part of GenZ reality and is, therefore, a part of theatre and art. In addition to its faults, it has the power to make us faster, smarter, and more adaptable.
    9.  We have darker humor than you might be used to. It is no secret that the internet has overwhelmed GenZ with tragedy since birth. The way we cope with the world we’ve been given is often through grim and considerably inappropriate humor.

By no means are these values all agreed upon among GenZ Americans. No generation is a monolith. But the tides are changing and it is important to know why, how, and what former generations are going to do about it.

What it Looks Like

Here are some trends I have already started to see with young theatre makers and what I predict may change in the coming years:

    • More content will be recorded and streamed to increase accessibility. We have already learned since the pandemic that the physical gathering of theatre is what can make it so special, but oftentimes that can be a barrier to entry. GenZ can be the generation that finds a way to bridge this gap.
    • Short pieces and variety shows will rise in popularity. Take the Neo-Futurists’ Infinite Wrench for example. Its fast pace and short duration keep an audience’s attention. I do not say this because Gen Z has shorter attention spans; that research is mixed. Having the option of both long and short-form content could draw more audience or appeal to people who typically stay away from the theatre in fear of being bored or taking a $30 nap. It is not a problem unique to this generation, I just have hope that we will have more ways to approach it.
    • Magic will continue to take over realism. The commitment and language around American Realism is still hanging on for dear life, but it is time to let go and make room. Take, for example, how top critics in Chicago negatively reviewed Pass Over in 2017 because they did not think it was “real” and “honest”. In a previous Rescripted article on this topic, Monty Cole argues that those moments were not meant to exist within the confines of realism. The true meaning went over their heads because they refused to interact with the production on an abstract level. As the generation committed to this realism ceases to rule American Theatre, there will be room for other styles to have their moment in the spotlight.
    • Productions will look more like concerts. Think of the audience experience in ancient Greek and Elizabethan theatre that is so romanticized in the West. Audiences could socialize, drink, come and go, and actively engage in the performance. This kind of audience experience used to be familiar in theatre. Maybe it’s time to bring it back. Make it an event. Think of dressing up for Barbie, the concert that is Six, or the rise of escape rooms and other immersive experiences. Theatricality is having a moment, and we need to keep that ball rolling.
    • Say goodbye to hierarchy. Wouldn’t that be nice? Pyramid management models only benefit those at the top. We can do better at understanding the value and worth that everyone on a team can bring in both the rehearsal room and the board room. Consider the history of ensemble theatres in Chicago and collective creation. Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide To Devised Theater by Chloe Johnson and Coya Paz Brownrigg, delves into this history and credits the roots of the movement to social programming in the neighborhood-based, immigrant-rich, West side of Chicago.
    • Decentralized leadership will lend itself to better financial transparency. Think of “bills, bills, bills” from the Nothing for the Group newsletter or On Our Team, a non-profit dedicated to fair wages in the industry. There is a need to understand how art-making can exist in late-stage capitalist America. It may seem impossible, but at least we can lean on each other to make it easier. Even the Washington Post recently argued that American theatre in its current form, does not deserve to be saved. Author Monica Byrne suggests funding artists directly rather than spending most of the budget on space and artistic directors. There is a clear demand for financial restructuring.
    • Grassroots inclusion will be a priority; representation starts from the ground up. Art is by and for the community. Therefore, non-profit board member requirements will change. A diverse board leads to a stronger company. A theatre company needs experts in a number of different areas, across all identities and experiences, in order to be as effective as possible in serving its community.
    • The themes of new work and revived work will revolve around dark humor, climate change, diverse cultures, and political activism. Many of these themes are not new to the world of theatre, but I do think they will make their way into the mainstream at an accelerated rate as GenZ artists move from entry-level positions to higher roles of power.
    • There is a chance of hesitation, distrust, and even abandonment of theatre in its current form. Theatre cannot provide most of its artists in this country with a livable wage. GenZ understands that is something that everyone should be entitled to. How can we keep chasing after something that hurts us so badly? Maybe we won’t chase it. Maybe we will leave it altogether.

With GenZ theatre, comes a GenZ audience, and many of them love theatre! This is a generation who grew up with Glee and High School Musical as pillars of their childhood. TikTok has allowed the young theatre-lover community to easily communicate with one another, and the power of this community is not to be underestimated. Think of Ratatouille the Musical. While it might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, you have to admit it’s proof that a young theatre audience is out there and growing.

Support Young Artists

I wanted to share my take on GenZ theatre because I believe in its future. I believe in the power of the young artist. Right now, GenZ theatre is facing an uphill battle. The challenges of late-stage capitalism in America paired with the post-pandemic job market has been enough to force many talented artists to leave the craft. This is true for artists of any age in 2023.

Please don’t let theatre just be for the nepo babies. That will likely negate all of the incredible growth and change that this generation has to offer. Right now, it’s starting to look that way. The minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, is the lowest it has been since the early 1940s. Even with our day jobs, it’s hard to put food on the table and find time to do what we love.

Gen Z theatre needs investment; time, knowledge, resources, care, and understanding. Simply ask yourself, “What do I have that would benefit the young artists around me?” Maybe it’s a connection, wisdom, coffee, financial support, you name it. Artists investing in one another is what makes a strong community.

Mentorship is something I personally have found extremely hard to find. With the pandemic, professors were often too overwhelmed to provide specific personal guidance. In my day-to-day work, I sometimes find myself teaching those around me more than I am learning from them. In looking outside of work and school, I am constantly reaching out to professionals whose work I admire for coffee, email exchanges, opportunities, or a call. Most of the time I don’t hear back. When I do and it works out, I am so incredibly grateful. Networking is not easy, and it has been the biggest roadblock in my experience trying to build my career so far. I know others feel the same. I understand it takes time to build these kinds of connections, and patience has never been my strong suit. That being said –

This is my cry for collaboration across generations. The plague of polarization around us doesn’t need to be perpetuated in theatre. So I am asking, let’s all take that little extra time to learn from each other. Send an email, take on an observer, or get coffee with the young professional in your office.

We want to hear from you and I promise, we have so much to offer.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to friends and collaborators who helped with the image collage (Maday Favela, Kost, and more).

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