Teen looks to make performing arts a higher priority for millennial generation

Steven Burke, a University of the Arts freshman, is New Cavern Productions' producing artistic director.
Steven Burke, a University of the Arts freshman, is New Cavern Productions' producing artistic director.
Posted: January 24, 2014

THE VARIETY of content conjured by the region's theater community is breathtaking. But on the other side of the footlights, diversity isn't nearly as prevalent.

The audience at any production, from a world-premiere drama to a touring Broadway musical, is overwhelmingly baby boomers and people old enough to be their parents. While some established local theater types wring their hands over this, an 18-year-old theatrical rookie is taking action.

Norristown-based New Cavern Productions was established last year to stimulate young people's interest in theater with original and adapted productions that play to youthful interests.

"I think [the lack of younger audiences is] largely a marketing problem," offered Steven Burke, New Cavern founder and producing artistic director. "During my first semester [at University of the Arts, where he's a freshman], I went to a lot of theaters. If you look at the demographics of who was there, [most] of the people would not be kids, and if they were, they'd be theater students. When you look at the marketing for Philadelphia theater, it's just not aimed at that crowd.

"There's a certain way you can market to youth, and that's what we decided to do. We want our productions to be accessible to everyone, but the key is in marketing to the [younger] demographic."

The first major test of Burke's theories will come in July, when New Cavern stages its first production, "The Who's Tommy," at its home base, Theatre Horizon, in Norristown.

Economics certainly plays into the lack of enthusiasm for theater among young adults. Most local companies offer student discounts, but sometimes even $15 is too much.

On a more esoteric (and insidious) level, modern pop culture and technology have teamed to create generations of younger consumers with ever-decreasing attention spans, making sitting through even a 90-minute production torturous. But Burke, an articulate and thoughtful musical-theater major, has factored that in.

"If you look at New Cavern's trailers [at newcavern.org], they're very quick, very flashy, and we integrate a lot of modern culture into the work," he said. (The trailer for an original play by Burke that's scheduled to begin workshops in the fall features Radiohead's "Paranoid Android.")

"But the key is not dumbing down the art because you think, 'Oh, they're not art people, so let's put on an easy production,' " Burke continued. "I think what people really appreciate about what we've been doing is, we lure them in with what I call a kind of 'modern culture beat.' Then you deliver a story that really touches them on an emotional level, and they realize how much art can really mean to them."

The seeds of New Cavern Productions, named by Beatles fan Burke in honor of the Cavern Club, the Liverpool nightclub at which the Fab Four were discovered by their manager Brian Epstein, were planted while he was a senior at Upper Merion High School.

"Last year I wrote an original stage adaptation of 'The Great Gatsby' as my senior graduation project," Burke said. "The entire goal of the production was to get students who usually don't go out to see artistic productions to come out."

Burke accomplished that by emphasizing the story's famed party scene in promoting the show. "Our slogan was, 'The party starts here.' We used flashy sets and lighting and loud [contemporary] music" in online ads and for the show.

He described it as "a big success, and the audience we attracted ended up being that younger demographic. And all the people we ended up asking after the show, they were saying, 'Theater's not really my thing; I don't usually like to go to things like this, but I loved it.' "

By that time, Burke had been working for several years with Theatre Horizon's company. Noting the success of "Gatsby," Theatre Horizon artistic director Erin Reilly asked him to produce a summer show for her. But Burke, who obviously thinks big, decided, with his partner, managing director Evan Rieger, to go whole-hog and create New Cavern.

"I think he's just about the most talented young producer I've worked with in some time," Reilly said of Burke.

Rieger and Burke's goal is not only to encourage young people to experience live theater but to provide a vehicle for aspiring artists in multiple disciplines, including music and Internet entertainment. Among New Cavern's projects is a Web cartoon series called "Dude 389."

"In college, you're kind of in a no-man's land, where it's hard to find professional [stage] jobs, but you've kind of outgrown community theater," Burke reasoned. "It's hard finding a professional platform where young artists can grow and develop.

"We wanted to give the Philadelphia artists someplace where they can showcase themselves and network so they can find more jobs."

That, Reilly said, is what especially intrigues her about Burke's efforts. "I'm very interested in his company's multidisciplinary approach," she said. "The theater is always looking for ways to engage a new audience. I'm very interested to see how his approach can achieve that."

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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