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Would You Trade Board Oversight For Investor Scrutiny?

The Clyde Fitch Report takes a close look at a bill being proposed in the U.S. Senate to give Broadway investors the same tax break as those who invest in movies.

The goal of the legislation according to a press release put out by the bill’s sponsor, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is to provide more incentive for banks and investment funds to invest in Broadway shows and therefore spur job growth.

“..Due to the tremendous risk involved, it is very unlikely that any managed fund or banking institution in the United States will lend resources for live theatrical productions, so the majority of capitalization comes from small or independent investors.”

After some analysis The Clyde Fitch Reports’ asks if there really is a dearth of investors and they wonder if banks should really be investing clients’ money in an endeavor widely acknowledged as likely to lose money.

Do you believe banking and investment institutions should gamble their clients’ money to produce Broadway shows?

Do you believe 233 names, sets of names and/or entities listed over the title of a random list of 10 Broadway shows represents a problem generating a “pool of interested investors in Broadway”?

Do you believe investors in commercial Broadway deserve a tax break?

Are there any other individuals in the American theater for whom tax-code tweaks might be desirable?

When I first read the article, I thought it was a proposal to get investors paid earlier in the process. While it isn’t, I wondered with the weight of large investment institutions present, would the arrangement get altered so that investors recouped sooner and “Hollywood accounting” adopted resulting in the creatives getting little.

I also wondered with more money behind them, would Broadway productions become more adventuresome, or even more oriented toward stage adaptations of proven works and revivals.

On the other hand, since I am always keeping my eyes open for alternative funding models, I also wondered if this might provide more options nationally to arts organizations.

When I first read the following from the Schumer press release, I thought perhaps these investment tax breaks might be applicable to artistic projects created around the country.

“On average, Touring Broadway contributed an economic impact to the local economy that was 3.5 times the gross ticket sales. This income is also vital to sustaining our nation’s theatres, as more than 50% of Performing Arts Center’s ticket sales derive from patrons attending the Touring Broadway series. This revenue permits local venues to offer opera, ballet, unique exhibitions and to fund much needed arts education curricula. Without Touring Broadway, all of these vital programs would suffer.”

Then I realized, no, what the release is saying is that Broadway needs the tax breaks so everyone else can present Broadway tours.

I am a little skeptical about the economics cited here. I don’t know about the venues with week long runs, but while Broadway audiences are among our biggest, they are also the shows that tend to lose the most money for us. We ain’t funding anything else off the proceeds.

Now if they were obliged to lower their rates for non-profits in return for this tax break, that would be beneficial to us. But I don’t see that happening.

All the same, I do wonder if the law being proposed could benefit people in other parts of the country looking to run a performing arts center as a commercial enterprise by allowing them to solicit investors.

Or perhaps it could help turn other cities into development centers by attracting investment for works that weren’t necessarily contemplated to go to Broadway but rather stay put in Portland, Minneapolis, Miami, etc. as a significant attraction for the region.

The productions may not gain the same cachet it would from Broadway, but what it did develop might be enough to create regional or national interest in a tour of say a multi-media dance work that generated a respectable return on the investment.

If the legislation is not written in such a way to include non-Broadway productions, is it worth lobbying to have the scope widened?

As the title of this post suggests, it would change the complexion of the way performing arts entities operated.

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Even More Live, Live Performance

A lot of people are going to be entering a dark room and putting on blindfolds. No, I am not talking about fans of 50 Shades of Grey.

ArtPride NJ tweeted an article today about a Sensory play being offered in Jersey City.

The Shapeshifter,” a sensory play by local writer Meg Merriet, is designed for sight-impaired audiences and uses fragrance, atmosphere, texture and sound to bring the story to life. Sighted audience members, on the other hand, are blindfolded.

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“I realized that the theater world was very much in need of a catch-up when it came to ADA-compliance and accessibility,” said Levie. “The goal of No Peeking is to create a new experience by taking away the privilege of sight and adding other sensory elements to live arts, be it theater performance, poetry readings or live music.”

As I read this article, it occurred to me that this was an arena in which live performance could compete with recorded and digital media. Perhaps organizations offering live performance need to double down and offer more “food for the senses” by asking people to deprive themselves of sight.

Because most people are so dependent on sight, it wouldn’t take much effort to create interesting and tantalizing experiences. All that would be needed was a hint of something and let people’s imaginations fill in the blanks.

Then there would be the overwhelming desire to look at one’s cellphone on top of the already overwhelming desire some people have even when they can see.

Although, even that could play a part in a sensory play if someone created an app that connected the phone to the action (or provided attendees with some other device they could hold) that would synchronize programmed sensation with the action.

A sensory performance need not depend solely on removing people’s sense of sight. Providing earphones that pumped white noise to remove a sense of hearing or provided audio that synched with the action, but not in the way someone might expect is also an option (think Pink Floyd-Wizard of Oz synchronicity in Dark Side of the Rainbow, only intentional.)

Because of allergies, I would imagine choices for smell, taste and touch would be very limited. But as the process was refined, a wider range of options might open up. (Just imagine a theatrical supply companies opening up entire new lines of hypo-allergenic products.)

All this being said, the idea of providing sensory experiences isn’t new. Movie theaters tried smell-o-vision and seats with rumble packs to provide different sensations. The results were not very good. Technology has come some way in solving this, but accurate mass delivery of the same experience is going to be expensive.

But as I said, the advantage live performance has is that living element. There is no need for fancy sound equipment to simulate someone walking from right to left, because they are. The idea of a person being hit and falling is much more present for you when it is live rather than closing your eyes in a movie. The prospect that someone might even be moving closer to you, even if it is only 3 feet, is experienced in ways that even the best surround sound system can’t replicate.

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By Faith Alone

Yesterday I wrote about the need for grace in the face of criticism. It must have struck a chord with some folks because the traffic to that post exploded (I am sure a great deal of credit goes to Thomas Cott, though.)

Today I wanted to touch upon the equally frustrating, but much more gratifying “that was amazing, too bad more people weren’t there,” event.

To be clear, this isn’t the show that your staff and arts insiders from your community thought was excellent for its artistic quality. This is the show at which 100 regular members of the community filtered into your 550 seat theater and absolutely loved it.

You know they loved it because right at intermission as you move to use a urinal a total stranger thanks you for taking the time to visit his group and tell them about the show.

(If you are a guy, understand just how much he must have loved the show that he couldn’t adhere to the unspoken rules about not holding a conversation with a stranger at the urinals.)

You know they loved it because strangers keep coming up to you at restaurants and supermarkets for weeks later to tell you how excited they were.

Not to mention the social media conversations that you may catch.

This is the type of reaction that makes a career in the arts worthwhile. Few other professions get this sort of heartfelt thanks.

Except, you know, you would probably be okay trading a “that was awesome” for “that wasn’t bad” if it meant having 300-400 more people in the audience.

That brings me to the real purpose of this post, which is to ask a question.

There is some received wisdom that once people learn they can trust your organization to provide a quality experience, they will be more willing to take a risk on unknown and unfamiliar shows.

So my question is, is that really true? Can anyone point to a case where their local community grew to trust their judgement and attended unfamiliar events in sustainable numbers based on faith?

I am not talking simply about growing an audience. I increased attendance at dance concerts when I was in Hawaii. But that was more about marketing and making dance programs and schools more aware of performances and talking to them about what we were planning for next year.

While this certainly generated trust in our work, it was more a matter of effectively tapping into an existing interest group than cultivation.

I have also definitely had people who have said they weren’t sure about a performance, but attended because they knew we did quality and interesting work.

The problem is that their numbers were relatively small and while they may have represented the unexpressed sentiment of a larger group, attendance often made it clear there weren’t numbers to be sustainable.

At the base of this is the necessity of taking a critical look at whether pursuing audience trust as a long term goal is realistic or is it a pleasant ideal to which non-profit arts organizations have subscribed.

Research has shown that audiences in general don’t discern between whether an event is being held by a for-profit or non-profit entity when choosing what to attend. With that in mine, are there that many in our communities that really appreciate that you are pursuing excellence when others seemingly are not?

It is likely that audiences aren’t thinking in terms of excellence as much as having an awesome or amazing experience, and that is fine. But we all know that it is relatively easy to provide an experience that will be evaluated in these terms by offering a commercially recognizable name.

So again I come back to the question, after having mastered marketing and awareness building, has anyone managed to grow a following/loyalty/what have you, in your community based on faith in your work? How did you do it? Where did you do it? What is the scale of the program?

I don’t doubt that success is possible in cities and communities where the underlying dynamics encourage curiosity and experimentation. But a lot of those places can have higher costs of living so question about being self-sustaining becomes relevant.

Since there is rarely anything in the arts that is truly self-sustaining, what I mean is a program central to the organization’s operations that has become increasingly less dependent on grant support or infusions from other parts of the program. An after hours program doing edgy programming in the black box theater seating 80 is being subsidized by all the other events that keep the organization in business.

A company that has gone from not paying anyone and depending on everyone to costume themselves to paying a stipend equivalent to $1.12/hr and costuming from Goodwill is an improvement, but probably isn’t a proven model yet.

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Grind Your Teeth and Then…?

Sometimes I think Seth Godin is writing just for me because one of his recent posts about graciously accepting critical feedback came across my Twitter feed shortly after we got a “you don’t advertise enough” comment on a survey.

My suspicion is that since she is a season subscriber and doesn’t need to pay close attention to our advertising, the digital billboard at the center of town and the special emails her husband receives are probably slipping under her notice. Those are just the communication channels I know with certainty they encounter.

Getting this type of feedback can make you grind your teeth in frustration. But for a commenter of the type that Godin previously labeled the Generous Skeptic, providing this type of feedback because you care about the person or business can involve a degree of vulnerability.

When the generous skeptic speaks up, she’s taking a risk. If you respond to her generosity by arguing, by shutting down, by avoiding eye contact or becoming defensive, you’ve blown it. You’ve taken a gift and wasted it, and disrespected the gift giver at the same time.

[…]

“Tell me more about that,” is the useful and productive response, not, “no, you’re wrong, you don’t understand.”

There’s always time to ignore this feedback later. Right now, dive into it, with an eager, open mind. It’s a gift you’re not often offered.

In his previous post about the Generous Skeptic, Godin spoke in the context of individuals interacting. In his most recent post, he illustrates how the interaction might manifest between a business and an individual.

You can react to the feedback by taking it as an attack, deflecting blame, pointing fingers to policy or the CEO. Then you’ve just told me that you don’t care enough to receive the feedback in a useful way.

Or you can pass me off to a powerless middleman, a frustrated person who mouths the words but makes it clear that the feedback will never get used. Another way to show that you don’t care as much as I do. And if you don’t care, why should I?

One other option: you can care even more than I do. You can not only be open to the constructive feedback, but you can savor it, chew it over, amplify it. You can delight in the fact that someone cares enough to speak up, and dance with their insight and contribution.

Your first reaction to getting criticism may always be to grind your teeth. As bad that might be for your dental bills, you have a choice about what you do next, either as an individual or a company.

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