April 13 2016 11:48 AM

Wharton Center program offers perks to attract young professionals

Kate Snyder, 35, describes herself as being “on the cusp of Gen X and Millennials.”

She and her husband have been Wharton Center season ticket holders for several years. But a few years ago, something started to bother them.

“When we sit there at a show, we are the only people our age in a 20-foot radius,” she said.

At the big Broadway shows, especially, Snyder saw few people her age. Most were older. It bothered her enough that she began talking to the staff at the Wharton Center about how to bring more young people into the mix. She found the Wharton Center was also looking for ways to diversify its audience.

“If you look at the demographics of people who go to theater, it’s mostly older, Caucasian, suburban audiences,” Snyder explained. “We need to do a better job engaging young, diverse people.”

Snyder started talking to other young professionals and looking for ways to make going to a show a less intimidating experience for inexperienced theater-goers.

“We started to ask, ‘What if we could make this a group experience?’” she said. “We came up with the idea of giving a group of young professionals a chance to experience the Wharton Center together.”

The result is the NextGen program, which is wrapping up its third season at the Wharton Center. Snyder, whose day job is owner and principal strategist at Piper & Gold Public Relations, heads the program’s steering committee. The NextGen program reserves a block of seats for selected Wharton Center shows, and participants get these seats at a discount.

“When you sit down, you don’t feel out of place,” Snyder explained. “You’re not experiencing this new thing by yourself.”

The NextGen program also includes exclusive pre- and post-show activities. These activities double as networking opportunities for the young professional crowd.

“The most rewarding part is having the chance to meet other people who support the arts,” said Josh Holliday, program manager for the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and a member of NextGen’s steering committee. “We’re firm believers that art is key to bringing people together.”

When “Peter and the Starcatcher” came to Wharton in 2014, NextGen participants were treated to a reception at MSU’s Abrams Planetarium with food inspired by the tales of Peter Pan. When “Dirty Dancing” came to town last year, member of the cast offered dance lessons to the NextGen crew. Earlier this year, participants met legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette when he rolled into the Wharton Center with dancer Savion Glover.

“It’s something unique that not everyone gets,” said Holliday.

The NextGen program, which usually includes 3 to 5 shows per season, is generally sold as a package, but seats for some shows are available individually. The program wraps up its third season with “Matilda the Musical,” which is based on Roald Dahl’s tale of a book-loving prankster. The show opens Tuesday, and the NextGen event is tied to Thursday’s performance. NextGen attendees will have a chance to meet cast members and explore the lesser-known offerings of MSU’s libraries. NextGen tickets are still available from the Wharton Center box office.

NextGen also exposes participants to the behind-the scenes activity at the Wharton Center, including educational and outreach programs that are not often seen by the general public. Snyder hopes that bringing in new audiences will broaden the reach of art and art education in Greater Lansing.

“It’s not just about listening to music and having a cool experience,” Snyder said. “We want people to understand they’re contributing to making sure there’s music in our schools and theater in our communities.”