The Arthropologist

Undercover arts mama: A Raging Oldster infiltrates those fussed-over Young Professional groups

Undercover arts mama: A Raging Oldster infiltrates those fussed-over Young Professional groups

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Houston Ballet Young Professionals, from left, Mireille Hassenboehler, Kelly Myernick, Oliver Halkowich, Jessica Collado and Joseph Walsh at a Ballet Barre event. Photo by Valerie Reeves/Art Institute of Houston North
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Dominic Walsh's Friday Night Casting Couch members, from left, back row, Gregory Krueger and Vincent Zontini; front row, from left, Nicole Longnecker, Jessica Walters, Erin Nies, Hala Daher at "Titus Andronicus" last season Photo by Elaine Mesker-Garcia
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Young professionals Kristy Junco, from left, Diana Cross and Trish Murison at a Houston Ballet's young professionals get together. Photo by Zuzana Leckova/Art Institute of Houston North
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From Dominic Walsh's Friday Night Casting Couch, Hala Daher, from left, Jessica Walters, Erin Nies, Kim Scates and Nicole Longnecker after "Romeo & Juliet" Photo by Elaine Mesker-Garcia
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Mingling with friends and dancers after "Titus Andronicus" are April Kyle, from left, Hala Daher, David Tong, Nicole Longnecker and Katie Mahoney of Dominic Walsh's Young Professionals group of the Friday Night Casting Couch Photo by Elaine Mesker-Garcia
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Up at TUTS Party On The Prairie at Wabash Feed Store in celebration of TUTS' presentation of the musical, "Little House On The Prairie." The winning team from the Lincoln Log competition: Lanson Jones, from left, Jay Cohen, Megan Cooper and Elizabeth Jones. Courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars
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News_Nancy Wozny_young professionals_Dominic Walsh_Friday Night Casting_Gregory Krueger_Vincent Zontini_front_Nicole Longnecker_Jessica Walters_Erin Nies_Hala Daher
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News_Nancy Wozny_young professionals_Dominic Walsh_Friday Night Casting_April Kyle_Hala Daher_David Tong_Nicole Longnecker_Katie Mahoney
News_Nancy Wozny_young professionals_TUTS_Party on the Prairie_at Wabash Feed Store_Lanson Jones_Jay Cohen_Megan Cooper_Elizabeth Jones

Tonight, the young and gorgeous gather at DiverseWorks for a post Hunter Gatherers dessert and drink soiree sponsored by Houston Young People for the Arts (HYPA). It's a marvelous Catastrophic Theatre production that you should not miss.

I call it the Mozart plus Mojito phenomenon. I'm talking about the rise of those Young Professional (YP) arts groups that will save America from the graying of the audience. As we know, graying can lead to sudden death, possibly during intermission.

Now, I might sound cynical, probably because I technically was never a young professional. I was a young scrappy artist, who performed for other young scrappy artists. Afterward, we went to a scrappy bar for cheap white wine, which I have since learned is now a Starbucks.

Or maybe I am angry because no one is going after my demographic (those not attending arts events). Late baby boomers make up the largest audience for the arts (yeah, my people rock). Afraid we are going to die too soon and are not worth the investment of time and energy?

And these Young groups do take staff time to organize, promote and pull off. How's the payoff?

"Too soon to tell," arts organizations whispered in hushed tones, as if YP groups were a sensitive subject. Big mistake ignoring us: If our kids ever graduate from college and get a job, we might have both time and money.

The YP Queen

One can't really discuss the young and cultured without talking to the maven herself, Heather Pray, founder of HYPA, which partners with several of the YP groups in town, selecting events that appeal to her demographic. Pray was not raised in an all-arts household; she discovered the joys of art stomping after college. According to Pray, elementary school is not the only time to get exposed to the arts.

"Post-college is another opportunity," she says. And I totally get that estranged from-peer-group-post-college funk. Your co-workers leave work at 6 p.m. to take their children to T-ball practices; you need to build a new social circle.

The term "Young Professionals" makes most young professionals cringe. I visited with two young arts czarinas, Mandy Graessle of Fresh Arts and Jenni Rebecca Stephenson of Spacetaker, to get an insider's perspective.

"Companies spend lots of money and effort on throwing parties, happy hours and social soirees to attract the new, the young, and the beautiful under the auspices of  'come get cultured,' " Graessle says. "Now, we have tons of 'successful young professional programs' with thousands of members and overcrowded happy hours with arts enthusiasts, and yet our arts patron demographic hasn't changed.

"Arts marketers still don't know that there is a female who is 35 years old in a seat in their theater who has no desire to go to another happy hour."

Stephenson feels the effort needs more focus. "I think YP groups generally spend more time worrying about getting the right people at the parties and not enough time cultivating those young audiences who may have a vested interest in the arts," she says. "I think less time should be spent on hype and more time on data-mining and education."

An Oldie Undercover

I thought it best to strap on some snazzy shoes, a wig, get a little Botox and go undercover at some of these YP events. Or, more easily, just go as someone's mother.

First stop, Opening Night (O.N.) at Houston Grand Opera. I could not bear the sight of a woman standing alone by the three pieces of cheese, so I went up to chat with her. I was moved by her story. She had just relocated here, always loved opera, and hoped to meet some peers who also loved opera. All good. I'm just sorry she got stuck talking to a gizzorette.

Note to YPers, it's a mixer, mix. Another O.N. event featured a very long line for a glass of wine. Oh, the opera, Tosca, was divine. Let's not forget the art part.

The drinks, food, and fun were flowing at the Theatre Under the Stars party, along with the stellar cast of Miss Saigon. Then I noticed everyone in the room was a well-groomed middle-aged man. The announcement  "Welcome to Out at TUTS" tipped me off. Oops, thanks for the food, you are a terrific bunch.

I never did make it to UP at TUTS, their YP group, although I did hear they had a fun Lincoln Log contest as a pre-show event to Little House on the Prairie.  I would have won because I actually played with Lincoln Logs.

I had a quasi-conversation with Mark Morris at Society for the Performing Arts' NiteSPA. He talked about hating the Rothko Chapel while not making eye contact. Thrilling. The party was at a real person's house who actually cooked dinner. There, I met Jessica Walters, who led the YP group at Planned Parenthood and invited me to come to Dominic Walsh Dance Theater's Friday Night Casting Couch. Gotta love that name.

Now, I'm sure Walters could persuade me to go to monster truck rally. She possesses a wild enthusiasm mixed with equal part charisma. You just want to do whatever she says.

So off I went to DWDT's after Romeo and Juliet  party. I met April Kyle, who was not a dance fan before joining the group. "At first, I came because of Jessica, but look at this, this company is amazing, and the dancers are terrific," Kyle says, pointing to the dynamite members of DWDT. "Peer recommendation is important."

Although there was neither a couch nor an event on a Friday night, this was one fun party. Mercury Baroque fans were present, always a lively bunch, and get this, other gray hairs were in the room. Dancers were there (always a plus when the artists are among the crowd). I have no doubt this crowd has shifted from Jessica followers to DWDT followers. As it should be.

More than champagne sips

I decided to drag Walters to Houston Ballet's Ballet Barre, mostly an elegant group of ladies and willing husbands, with better bags and shoes. Champagne was waiting for us during La Bayadere's intermission. There I met one of the group's founders, Lindsey Brown.

"It was essential that Ballet Barre include performances," Brown says. "We are not just about the party."

She's right, I ran into a champagne toting Ballet Barre bunch at a Houston Ballet II rehearsal. Nice touch. Later in the season, I trudged through a monsoon to get to Anvil for a gathering post La Fille Mal Gardee, (damn, I have a weakness for those herb-infused liquid salad drinks), where I met a woman who belongs to just about every YP group in the city. "If the art isn't good, it doesn't matter how good the party is," she says. Sing it, sister!

What's going to happen when you darlings turn 40, the cutoff for most of these groups? I suspect you will all be clamoring to join my soon-to-be-formed Raging Aging Hipster Oldster Smart Artz Klub. (The title is still in beta testing, folks.) We will feature fine beer and food with loads of calories, like Joel Luks' red velvet cupcakes.

Truly, I love young people, I gave birth to two of them. But the stats can't be ignored; people have been in a tizzy over the graying of audiences for a half century now. Alex Ross cites the alarmism of the 1960s in his New Yorker essay The Fatal X. What if the critical mass of people follow a "born, college, bands, bars, marriage, kids, art, die" trajectory and that's just how it is?

Regardless of the mystery of how the arts continually populate seats with my fellow cronesters, there's a different lesson here. You don't need a group of same-aged people to love art. According to Graessle, Walters and Kyle, each of us holds a power to influence our peers when it comes to an art experience that has touched our hearts and souls.

Just go a little "Jessica" on your friends. Bring them under the spell of art. That's a good thing at any age.