Theater for Techies: How a Doris Duke Grant Aims to Engage Seattle's Millennials

Child psychologists and developmental specialists often tell parents that if their kid embraces a certain avocation—be it violin lessons or chess—then let them run with it. If Billy's really into young adult science fiction literature, there's no point in putting him on a path to become, say, a corporate attorney. Go with what works. 

We'll leave the discussion on the effectiveness of this strategy for another day. But until then, we have a more pressing philosophical question. What if we applied this strategy to engaging the valuable and elusive techie donor class? You know, the millennial engineers, the software developers, the geeks?

To some, it may sound a bit craven. To the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, it's savvy.

Followers of Duke are likely familiar with their Building Demand for the Arts program. It's pretty self-explanatory stuff. After all, an organization can't present arts to a community if there's no demand for it. (It reminds us of a recent New Yorker cartoon. Two bespectacled professionals are holding drinks at a cocktail party. One says, "Our job is to bring the arts to people who don't want it.")

As we noted in a piece looking at this program, the foundation tends to fund organizations that do three things well. They:

  • Recognize and respond to demographic trends.
  • Embrace interactive programming mediums.
  • Develop new and original material.

With this as a baseline, it should therefore come as no surprise that Duke awarded a $40,000 grant to Seattle's ACT Theatre as part of its Building Demand for the Arts program.

Equipped with the money, the ACT Theatre and Seattle visual and performance artist Lucia Neare will look at cosplay—short for "Costume Play," or dressing up and pretending to be a sci-fi, comic book, or anime character—massive multiplayer online role-playing games, and other engagement strategies in order to engage the city's legions of millennials in the high-tech industry. 

According to a press statement from the Duke foundation, "ACT and Neare will plunge into a process of critical reflection to explore the intersection of live theatre and tech/geek culture, including the creation and maintenance of avatars (whether through tangible forms like the new performance media of cosplay, or in the virtual realm of such massive multiplayer online role-playing games as World of Warcraft)."

Now, if you're like us, you probably understood only about 25 percent of the nouns in that quote, so we'll simplify things for you. ACT Theatre and Lucia Neare acknowledged unavoidable demographic facts. Seattle, like many other U.S. cities, is chock-full of so called "geeks." Geeks like video games, and so on. At the same time, this demographic represents an untapped audience base. So they're meeting the geeks on their own turf. Go with what works.

According to the press release, Neare will also "conduct field research at four major Seattle geek culture conventions: Emerald City Comicon, Sakura-Con, PAX Prime, and Geek Girl Con. At the project's conclusion, Neare will create a plan for ACT to increase demand for live theatre performance among millennials employed in the high-tech industry."

One last point. The Seattle experiment presents an intriguing juxtaposition to what's happening down the coast in San Francisco, where "highbrow" arts institutions like ballets and operas are also trying to attract millennials. The key difference? While the former appeals to classic "nerd culture," the latter seems to be angling for more affluent, networking-in-khakis types. 

In other words, don't expect a Matrix-inspired virtual reality interpretation of Swan Lake anytime soon. Thankfully.