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All You Can Smile For Just $25!

When the entertainment tax in Spain skyrocketed, attendance at shows fell precipitously. To lure people back, one comedy theater company instituted a program where people would only pay if they laughed. According to an article on Springwise, the seats were outfitted with cameras and facial recognition software.

Every time you laughed, the account associated with your seat is charged 30 euro cents. So that people wouldn’t intentionally restrain themselves as the show progressed, the charge was capped at 80 laughs or 24 Euros.

They also instituted a season ticket where you bought “laughs” rather than performances. Since other theaters around Spain are adopting this system, I wonder if the laughter season tickets are redeemable at any participating venue.

The video accompanying the article suggests a pay per cry for tragedy and a pay per WTF! when attending an avant garde piece.

While those last suggestions are a little tongue in cheek, the system helped the theater raise their income by $28,000 Euros over what was normally taken.

Now certainly this specific system isn’t suitable for all genres of performance. It wouldn’t work for symphony concerts unless you were charging for all the time people weren’t fidgeting, coughing or consulting their cellphones. (Though penalizing people for pulling out their cellphones does have a certain appeal!)

However, the general concept does answer what is often a significant barrier to participation in an unfamiliar experience–“What if I don’t like it?”

I also like the idea that you could purchase “experiences” that might be transferable from venue to venue. That way a state arts council or tourism board could sell experiences redeemable at all the arts organizations around the state.

Then if you lived near a museum, you could go in on one day and visit a couple galleries and only be charged per gallery you entered or by each work you viewed for more than a few minutes. You could come back a week later and visit another gallery. By the time you are finished, you feel you have gotten your money’s worth on your own schedule and didn’t have to pay multiple times for re-entry. (I am specifically thinking of the recent complaints about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s voluntary admission fee.)

All this being said, I am not sure how best to accomplish this operationally. If there is going to be pay for reaction, I think it has to be more streamlined and elegant than attaching iPads to the back of theater seats as seen in the video. Though I do see the value in allowing people to see themselves reacting and share it on social media, I would be concerned about damage or theft.

What might be viable are some sort of disposable medical sensor placed on the face to determine when muscles formed a smile or heart rate changed or when someone stood up and started dancing.

The more I think about this, the smarter I think it is. If you cap out the cost at the price you would have normally charged, if people reach or exceed that cap, there is quantitative data to back up the fact they enjoyed themselves…or that they got a bargain and should have paid more for enjoying themselves as much as they did.

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Of Lab Mice and Men

I was listening to the radio yesterday when they mentioned the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I was amazed to learn the researchers had gained some insight in to how we navigate the world around us. The whole concept seems too ineffable to be grasped. But indeed the researchers gained at least a toehold on it.

What really got me was that this development was based on a discovery one of the researchers made in 1971 and then bolstered by a discovery the other two award recipients made in 2005.

Now I am sure each has experienced many other developments in their research and that these discoveries informed other areas of research. But it left me pondering at the patience and belief involved in scientific research to wait over 30 years for some other piece of research that complements and validates your own. Then wait nearly a decade more for people to vet both pieces of research and recognize the significance.

Again I am not saying this is the only thing the researchers have accomplished in their careers and that they only received validation when they were awarded the Noble Prize.

I just feel somewhat humbled by the idea that research is being done with the faith that it may contribute to a profound discovery.

Scientists and artists pursue their vocations differently so it isn’t fair to try to compare the two directly. Still, how many of us in the arts, practitioners and funders alike, are instilled with a vision of what we want to accomplish that spans decades and have the patience to see it through?

Certainly the arts operate much more reactively than science as times and tastes change.

When you are worried about next year’s funding, it can be difficult to cleave to a long term vision of where you want to be.

I am not sure if scientists have a grand master vision either rather than focusing on progressing from one project to the next. My perception is that there is a greater acknowledgment that progress takes time and there is a greater willingness to accord them that time.

On the other hand, artists can be sustained by a similar thought that a performance given today may plant seeds that manifest into something of international note decades down the road.

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Why Here? Why Now?

You may have seen that the St. Louis Symphony experienced a pop-up protest urging a change of attitude in light of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

I have looked at reporting on this event on Huffington Post, NPR and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

None of them answered the biggest question that came to mind–Why did they choose to do this at a St. Louis Symphony concert? Are there people from Ferguson who attend the concert that they hoped to influence?

The Washington Post article quotes one of the organizers as saying they wanted to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable,..”

But I wondered if that was their only aim or if they are hoping for something more. It seems like a lot of effort to jar people out of the comfort zone.

My assumption, which may be incorrect, was that it was perceived that people of influence in general attend symphony concerts and the planners of this intermission event hoped to mobilize the attendees to act either directly or indirectly. Is this at least a partial acknowledgment that a symphony still wields some relevance?

Perhaps their aim was simply to reinforce their parting message that black lives matter.

I doubt the answers to any of these questions are clearcut because there are complicated issues of racial and social demographics and power dynamics entwined with Ferguson, the symphony attendees and the flash mob.

As to whether they were successful or not is a matter of gauging whether more people were applauding than were visibly displeased.

Two weeks ago I wrote about my participation in an NEA webinar that stressed the value of the arts in healing communities. As I watched the video of this flash mob today, I wondered if the St. Louis Symphony had been recruited to serve as a convener for a conversation without their knowledge.

Is this an opportunity for the St. Louis Symphony or some other arts organization to facilitate a conversation about the issues facing the greater community?

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Wherein I Speak of Chocolate Chip Cookies and Zombies (But Mostly Cookies)

My mother sent me a recipe for chocolate chip cookies today. This sort of thing has been going on for a few years. She has been finding these new cookie recipes which she swears are better than the old recipes and she sends them to me.

Frankly, I am not having it. Maybe it is due to the temperature differences en route to my house, but when I eat the cookies she mails me, I can’t believe she is claiming these are better than the ones I grew up on. It isn’t just the taste. The texture and general consistency of the cookies are all wrong.

I will eat other cookies, but when it comes time to make cookies to give to others, I am sticking to the old proven recipes in my book.

I am sure we all have something in our lives we are attached to in this manner. Something that we have an emotional attachment to for which we will accept no substitutes.

And maybe you can see where I am going with this. I bring this up to remind you that this is a powerful factor to contend with when we are trying to energize programming with new and challenging content.

Last week we opened the season with a guy who does a great job channeling Frank Sinatra who was joined by three guys who used to be in some of the Motown groups of the 60s. It was a great show and a lot of fun. I was dancing in the wings backstage. We had a great sized audience. As an opening show it really set the tone for the rest of the season.

As people left the performance they were telling me it was the best thing they had seen in a long time here. I have been hearing the same thing over the course of the last week. It hasn’t just been people who attended the show. Their friends and kids have been telling me they were told the same thing.

My perception is that it was a great show, but the best thing that has appeared here in a long time…I don’t know about that.

Though I admit I was backstage so I didn’t get the full impact of the show. Those guys all understood the power of showmanship and connecting with the audience so I don’t doubt everyone felt they had a quality experience.

We can talk about innovating our programs, educating and engaging audiences with new ideas. It is easy to forget that there is often a “homemade chocolate chip cookies” grade emotional attachment involved in some of the content we offer.

By no means do older audience members lack the interest and curiosity to participate in innovative approaches to art. They certainly have expectations of their experience that are rooted in the present.

But they also tend to have a much stronger emotional investment in their experience than younger audiences.

After the show last week, I received a call from a long time attendee who told me what he liked and disliked about the performance and then proceeded to complain about last season. One of his objections was to the profanity in West Side Story, a show that first hit Broadway over 50 years ago when this gentleman was in his 20s.

Yes, he may be a cranky old man that needs to recognize that honest portrayals of life include profanity. Maybe it isn’t healthy to be dwelling on gripes for 6+ months, but it is also a sign of an investment in what we do that isn’t exhibited by younger audiences.

It may be that we need to shift thinking and practices to engage younger audiences instead of being entrenched in practices of the past that appeal only to older audiences. But it also may be that societal dynamics have shifted to a place where it is unrealistic to expect that level of investment from people any longer.

Just think about how long bands like the Rolling Stones have endured. Then try to identify a group that has emerged in the last decade that has engendered a relationship with audiences that will sustain their zombie corpses.

Current efforts to sustain performing arts organizations may or may not correctly be compared to attempts to keep a corpse animated. I think we talk so much about the financial aspects of keeping an organization operational that it is easy to forget that it is more than just money keeping things going.

There is an emotional investment that accompanies the money and in some respects, it is much easier to find alternative sources of funding than it is to replace the value of that emotional investment.

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