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How Green Was My Wicked Witch

There has been an ongoing debate about whether simulcast performances from the Metropolitan Opera or London’s National Theatre will serve to erode audiences for live performances. According to research over the last few years, the answer isn’t entirely clear.

I have been thinking in the last couple weeks that one event I wouldn’t mind having the opportunity to live stream is the proceedings of BroadwayCon. The first Con a couple weeks ago seemed to exceed expectations despite the snowstorm that hit NYC.

The fact that so many people traveled great distances to meet each other, dress as their favorite characters and pick up new skills indicates there is potential to serve the large number of people who can’t make it. A live stream or two from the major speakers and panel events would allow groups across the country to organize their own local convention around the main convention schedule.

Sure, regional conventions like those organized for gaming, comics, anime, etc could be hosted independently around the country to tap into the enthusiasm a different times of the year. However, a live stream from the NYC Con (or other significant Con that subsequently pops up) could help provide performing arts entities in smaller communities that aren’t going to be able to attract celebrity guests an opportunity to organize people in their area.

This sort of event might serve to get people into their venue in the first place and create an energetic and friendly environment to introduce people to live theater. When major events aren’t being broadcast, workshops, panels, meetups, costume contests and such can be conducted where the rabid fans and the relatively uninitiated could mix together without a high intimidation factor. (Though debates over the correct shade of green to accurately depict Elphaba pose their own challenges.)

The biggest question would be the cost of streaming. I think it would be in the best interest of the BroadwayCon organizers to keep it low. Even if they lost money on streaming the event, they would likely be stoking the desire attend in person in people across the country.

For those who are tired of NYC and Broadway being held up as the be all and end all of theater in the country, I am completely with you there.

But my thought is that if you have a horde of people in your venue, some of which have never been there, and you are having classes in costume construction, giving tours of your fly gallery, holding acting classes and hosting karaoke sing alongs, not only have you found a way to fulfill your mission but they have new incentive to come back in the future.

That is, of course, dependent on you providing events and activities that are appropriate to their interests. It can’t be exciting times once a year and then a return to a situation that has little resonance with that same demographic the other 51 weeks. (Or other 11 months of the year in the case of Black History month programming.)

After a month or so when the dust settles, I was considering dropping the BroadwayCon organizers a line to see if they might entertain this idea. Anyone have any thoughts or ideas on the matter?

One of the first things that popped in my mind given the weather this year was whether there would be a way to avoid paying for the stream if snow forced you to cancel your local branch of the convention.

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They Are Us, We Are They

Seth Godin made a post in which he listed some of the following features of crowds:

[…]
The crowd gets on its feet when your band plays the big hit, and sits down for the new songs….

The crowd will always pick the movie over the book.

The crowd would rather wait in line for the popular attraction.

The crowd likes to be chased.

[…]

The crowd’s favorite words include fast, easy, cheap, fun, now and simple.

The crowd needs a deadline.

The crowd is the group of people who don’t get what you do, who loom on the horizon as the reward for making your work more popular.

And yet, the crowd continually gets more than it deserves, because people like you make work that matters. Work that you’re proud of.

Many of us can identify with that final line. We are under appreciated for the work we do in our communities.

It is important to remember, we too, are the crowd.

Most of these sentiments can apply to each of us as well in regard to that bakery, bookstore, school, fund raiser, festival, etc., that we think is really great but we don’t have the time, energy or opportunity to frequent as much as we would like. There are people who complain about our lack of engagement with them as much as we complain about theirs in regard to us.

I used to like to say, “Customers are idiots, I should know because I am one.” There is an incident that occurred at a Tesco in Ireland eight years ago that I am still not sure if I was being a stupid, clueless American or the employee was being inattentive. (I suspect I was being stupid and clueless regardless of nationality but there is room for doubt.)

It is impossible to be as attentive and have the same level of priorities as every struggling entity needs us to have. Working in the arts and non-profit sector, we are able to be a little more empathetic and mindful than most of the consequences our choices have on others.

As members of the crowd, we are also cognizant of the fact that it can be really difficult to inspire and motivate us contrary to our taste and priorities.

It is just that we forget that or wish it to be otherwise when it comes to other’s lack of investment in our work which is clearly better than they deserve.

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Removing Overhead Ratio As A Measure Is Not Enough

On Non-Profit Quarterly Claire Knowlton wrote a piece advocating for moving past a focus on overhead costs and direct program expenses in favor of full funding of non-profits by foundations. (Or at least recognition of full costs incurred by a non-profit.)

She seems to start from the premise that programs undertaken are essentially jobs non-profits do to further the interests of the funders. This sort of shifts the whole dynamic from a situation where non-profits cast about to find money in order to provide services to one where foundations seek skilled entities to solve problems for them.

Imagine if your personal paycheck were like a restricted grant. Instead of representing your value and level of responsibility in the company, your paycheck is based on a predetermined line-item budget that details exactly how you can spend your earnings. A portion of your paycheck can be used for rent, some for utilities, but most is earmarked for business attire, transportation to work, and coffee to keep you productive throughout the day. The thinking here is that by tying your paycheck to the expenses that contribute to your work, the company is making sure that you will show up on time, appropriately caffeinated, and properly dressed. It’s as if every penny of your paycheck is spent before you cash it.

To some extent, you had a say in your paycheck budget. In fact, you had to present a proposed paycheck budget when you applied for the job. Your friends on the inside said no one who spends more than 20 percent of his or her paycheck on rent has ever been hired. To get the job, you cut your rent line item. That means making do with an efficiency unit above an all-night bowling alley, but it’s better than not having a job at all. Some line items were nonnegotiable from the start: As a policy, your company won’t pay for haircuts; but that’s okay—you can let your hair grow long.

She goes on with this analogy noting that the “company” wants to make sure you are working effectively so they require you to generate reports–except that the cost of doing so will cause the ratio of time you devote on administrative tasks vs. the central tasks they are paying you to accomplish to skew higher. The employer won’t like that.

Because every penny of your paycheck is pre-spent, there is nothing left over for the future or to take care of retirement, emergencies and replacing your aging car (equipment).

In terms of a solution, she says:

“If we start to fully fund nonprofits for their day-to-day program and overhead expenses, and abandon overhead measurements as a proxy for mission fulfillment and efficiency, it’s the equivalent of giving nonprofits control over their paycheck.”

But she says the term “full costs” include:

Day-to-day operating expenses + working capital + reserves + fixed asset additions + debt principal repayment = full costs

In addition to laying out her argument, she makes suggestions to both non-profits and foundations about how they can change the conversation and practices.

Full funding of costs according to her definition would allow non-profits to be more focused on outcomes rather than compliance in order to survive.

This distinction is important. One of my initial thoughts when I read this was that what Knowlton was talking about would primarily be applicable to social service non-profits because fewer foundations would be interested in funding an arts non-profit primarily focused on creating performances.

The thing is, many performing arts organizations are just as focused on compliance and survival as any other non-profit. There are a lot of sincere ambitions that get abridged and curtailed because there isn’t possibility of revenue or funding.

I don’t know how many conversations I have had that started enthusiastically but were quickly ended by the phrase, “…unless we can get a grant to cover it.” Enthusiasm to do a week long residency with multiple interactions turns into a single lecture-demo for lack of funding. Opportunities for single lecture-demos get turned down for not being revenue generating. The outcome focused on is surviving another season.

After awhile, no one even entertains exciting ambitions and settle for minimal token gestures that will garner them a little bit of funding.

A situation where both the organizations and foundations embrace philosophies that make a complete assessment of what would be required to fully fund an arts non-profit could yield amazing outcomes from some.

In addition to funding capacity building for the organization so that everything from the board governance to hiring practices were strengthened, a rigorous study of what the local market would bear in terms of pricing, (including the optimal pricing spread for events), would provide a clear picture of what the capacity is for revenue.

This way there is a good basis for decision making by the organization as well as stronger justification of the funding that is needed to offset the difference between earned revenue, donations and program expense.

While I am skeptical full funding will happen, articles like this one and the conversation about eliminating overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness are indications that there is potential for a shift toward more constructive policies.

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More Discussion On The Value Of The Arts

Since I was on the subject of how people value the arts yesterday, I thought I would call attention to a post that appeared on HowlRound last summer. Edward Einhorn wrote about Money Lab, a show his company put together that involved the audience in money related games and activities.

One of the things they instituted was a patronage auction.

It was not a commission. The artist would have the full freedom to create whatever he or she wanted to create, in the manner he or she preferred. The patron would merely be providing funding for one hour of that artist’s time, during which the artist would create…something. The only obligation of the artist: afterwards, a “grant report” (a short email) would be sent to the patron, giving an account of that hour of creation time.

When I conceived of the patronage auction, I expected we’d be pushing it to reach $20. Still, I thought, $20 an hour is a pretty good salary for an artist, in our society.

The lowest the hour of artist’s time went for was $42. The highest was over $200.

Over the course of the production run which took place at a number of venues, about 2/3 of the time the audience instigated/requested a change of format that turned the patronage auction into a crowdfunding effort.

Einhorn mentions when they moved the show from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the amount raised by the patronage auctions were low at first which was disappointing.

To me. Not to the artist involved. Because no matter what the amount, the money said to the artist: You are valued, so much so that an audience member, more often than not a complete stranger to you, was willing to give away his or her own money to ensure that you had at least one hour in which you could create, without the pressure of economic reality hanging over you.

…But I do know we only experienced one low total during our final week of performance. It was the performance when an economics class had bought out over half of the house.

“Why should we bid?” I heard one pondering after the show. “What value do we get in return?”

It’s a good question. What value did the patrons get in return? All they were promised was an email two or three sentences long. It’s a question I confront all the time, when looking for funding for my theatre company and my own work. Grant applications constantly ask me to justify the value of what I do, by filling out forms in which they ask me to explain not only my artistic but also my social value. In return, I sometimes get a small sum which, when combined with other similar sums, can add up to enough to create one underfunded project.

The whole Money Lab project is pretty interesting because it explores the psychology of our relationship with money, including the sunken cost fallacy which influences people’s decision to attend performances.

The Willingness to Pay question comes up again as people who have probably paid for admission to a show exhibit willingness to spend additional money to fund an artist during the show. Is it because they are having a good time? Is it due to peer pressure or desire for social recognition? Is it because they can see and immediately identify with the artist being funded?

Does having people pay after they have seen all or part of the show bear further investigation? You may recall I wrote about a Spanish theater that was using facial recognition software that only charged you if you smiled/laughed.

Giving to charities often spikes during the times of tragedies and often online/via social media. I am not suggesting arts organizations trot out their emaciated performers and tell their audiences they can help feed them for only dollars a day.

I really dislike lengthy curtain speeches where you are enjoined to donate, but perhaps I should reconsider. People often respond to the immediacy of things right in front of them and social media giving makes it easier to do so than ever.

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