More than ever, the Annenberg Center is making a concentrated effort to reach students

November 24, 2009

Making the most of opportunities

The Annenberg Center is an oft-untapped cultural resource

by Sam Bieler| Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Op-Ed piece for the Daily Pennsylvanian

For most, Halloween Friday is a bacchanalia of wild parties and scandalous outfits; I saw Shakespeare. Love’s Labor’s Lost to be specific. Put on at the Annenberg Center by the famous Globe Theater Company, the play revolves around a series of romantic misunderstandings and revelations that cumulate in a moving message about the meaning of love. I, however, was mired in my own revelation — namely, that I was one of the only Penn students there. The performance began and ended well before the night’s festivities, and yet, unless the School of General Studies has dramatically expanded, there were few students to be seen.

And after further investigation, I must sadly conclude that this is the fault of students, not Annenberg. This year, more so than others, the center is making a concerted effort to reach students. Annenberg marketing director Nicole Cook says Annenberg has developed a new 7-person student-run marketing group, SMART, which helps handle publicity through fliers, Facebook and a redesigned e-mail system. “Students know what students want,” says Cook, who hopes that these new changes will draw more students. Even more importantly, Annenberg now has consistently priced “student rush” tickets for 10 or 15 dollars — less than a case of Natural Ice, and far more enjoyable.

I say more enjoyable because the Annenberg offers a collection of artists you will not find anywhere else. Two of Annenberg’s programs, Penn Presents and Dance Affiliates, offer the only contemporary dance programming in the Philadelphia area. “You would really have to go to New York to find a comparative experience,” says Madison Cario, Annenberg director of operations.

Cario and Michael Rose, Annenberg’s managing director, see a plethora of shows and talk to other institutions, gauging student reactions to artists they have shown. Only after this do they make the picks for the stage, hoping to get the most student-friendly performances possible.

Along the same lines, the center partners with University professors to bring additional learning and context to the works shown. Before one presentation of Love’s Labor’s Lost Theater Arts professor Cary Mazer led a discussion of the play over pizza. Rose Malague, director of the Theater Arts program, says that, “over the years, we have benefited specifically from visits to acting classes. Actors from touring Shakespearean productions, in particular, have offered opportunities for students to receive a ‘crash course’ on the special challenges and techniques of acting Shakespeare.” This says nothing of SPEC and the many student groups that benefit from use of Annenberg’s space.

In spite of all of this, students comprise only about 15 percent of the Annenberg’s regular audiences, a number that varies only slightly on the nature of the performance given.

Cook and Cario suggest that the decentralized nature of Penn, as well as the recession, could be the reason for this. “Art is essential, but it is often seen as a luxury,” says Cario.

“We have the most amazing artists, we want students to know they are welcome. We want them in our seats,” Cook adds.

And we should want to be in those seats. From freshmen to seniors, we are rapidly drawing to the end of the era in which we can take time out to go see theater, and to do so at a reasonable rate. We have already left behind those years when we were small enough and cute enough to get into theaters for free; soon we won’t even be able to get in for cheap.

If the Bieler family’s Thursday nights are any indication, as you get older there is still lots of time for drinking (and if Thanksgiving in particular is any indication, time for drinking lots), but a chance to take a night off and see a performance is something unique to this time in our lives. Get out and make the most of it.