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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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The Arts Are For Swingers

Do you ever sit in your office, thinking wistfully of the days when you were a kid and you would run around the playground, playing games and swinging on the swings?

Do you think your audience is thinking the same thing?

Well apparently some folks at Boston’s Convention Center were thinking along those lines because they built a temporary playground for adults on one of their lawns.

The playground is temporary because the convention center plans to expand on to that land in about 18 months. However, it is being used as something of a proof of concept testing ground.

The BCEC, Sasaki and Utile figured, why not test out some concepts for what should be the permanent park, further south on D Street towards residential South Boston?

The playground contains a “set of 20 lighted oval swings, bocce, ping pong, beanbag toss, Adirondack chairs, a sound stage, and open-air bar” and has become wildly popular.

Like the community ovens I wrote about a week or so ago, this is another idea for the type of thing that can be done to increase community engagement.

Now, according to one of the commenters on the article, the playground in Boston cost around $1.1 million which seems a little expensive for a project with an 18 month life span. Though maybe the equipment will migrate to the permanent park.

Many cities are seeing quick pop-up parks appearing on their streets.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation in Philadelphia set up an amazing looking pop up park for the summer. It was slated to close September 1 but got extended an entire month due to popular demand.

Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has a pop-up Audubon program aimed at kids. Huntsville, AL will have activities popping up along their streets this month.

If you look at the pictures associated with each of the projects, you will see that they run the gamut from ambitiously expensive to simple and versatile.

Pop up events like this can be used to inspire community action as well as a tool for direct engagement. While reading about pop-ups, I learned that a community in Dallas dressed up a street with benches, trees and pop up shops for a day to provide evidence for its potential. (If you are looking to use this for community improvement, check out Better Block.)

One of the commenters on the Boston Convention Center park story shared this video of a fun installation on the streets of Montreal where people generated music as they played on the swings.

Montreal’s 21 Swings (21 Balançoires) from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

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Transform Into…SUPER THEATER!!!!!!!

Andrew Taylor tweeted today that he would be speaking about theater spaces this week in Taipei and linked to a video of the Taipei Performing Arts Center.

At first I thought Andrew was going to be speaking there, but then realized the building hasn’t been completed yet.

Watching the video, I was interested to see that the design by Rem Koolhaas addresses many recent discussion points about how building design can either engage or alienate audiences. Starting at around 1:35 the video talks about how the street runs right into the building. Even more intriguing is the inclusion of a “Public Loop” which allows the general public to pass through and apparently peek in on the different performance and production work spaces around the building.

I imagine they would have to have some well trained staff present to prevent flash photography of a performance while allowing passersby to view what was transpiring. But more importantly than that, it seems to allow the public an opportunity to see what transpires backstage in the scene shop, costume shop and perhaps even in the fly system of a theater.

The public loop doesn’t seem to be comprised entirely of darkened hallways that visitors shuffle through. There appear to be open spaces where visitors can sit and relax for a time.

One element that came as a bit of a surprise was their “Super Theater” configuration mentioned around 4:30. It allows them to take down the walls between two of the spaces to create a massive warehouse like space. They cite the fact that B.A. Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten requires a 100 meter stage. (Yes, that is right, approximately the length of a football field.)

It may seem like a lot of construction expense to accommodate a niche use until you recall that productions like Sleep No More, The Donkey Show and their ilk use large open spaces like this.

The building exterior is rather strange looking and has its detractors. My immediate concern was if the difficulty and cost of transforming the building might make such a transformation more of an aspiration than a reality.

As I wrote this post, I recalled another transforming theater, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. It turns out that facility was also designed by Rem Koolhaas so his company has some experience with this process. As you can see in this video, it takes 11 stagehands six hours to transform that the Wyly Theatre. I imagine Taipei might require more people and closer to a day, but that probably isn’t an impediment.

I wrote about the design of the Wyly a few years back. As you can see in the video where Joshua Prince-Ramus explains the design, that building also highly flexible and has many engaging elements to it. It allows people to enter or exit through its very walls, or perhaps even sit outside and watch a performance (or rehearsal) inside.

In the context of all this, I am curious to learn what Andrew Taylor talks about in Taipei this week. Not to mention how successful the Taipei Performing Arts Center is at engaging their formal and informal audiences.

Artist conception of rival theater companies competing for market share

Artist conception of rival theater companies competing for market share

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