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Yeah, Sometimes It IS Boring

I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to post about today, but Adam Thurman at Mission Paradox decided me with his post today about reducing the opportunities for audiences to be anxious about their attendance experience.

He starts his post:

When I picture someone entering a live performance venue I imagine a thought bubble above their head. Here’s the thought inside that bubble:

“Man, I hope this doesn’t suck.”

Interestingly enough, that is what I was thinking when I was driving to see a dance show this Saturday. I didn’t have too much basis for real concern since I knew the curators who put the show together and had worked with close to half the groups who would be performing. On the other hand, the event was billed as cross cultural and you never really know how successfully performers will execute their vision of what that means.

I think most of you with any experience in the arts know what I mean. Like me, I am sure you have seen some pretty awful stuff performed right after some pretty good stuff and are uncertain how the night will turn out.

Question is, do most people in our audience members know we have the same concerns abut enjoying the as they do? Do they know we can be worried about not liking the performance or being bored?

I suspect they don’t. I suspect they feel our disappointment with a performance will be expressed in terms of the failure of its attempt to illuminate the futility of the post-modern vision against the fin-de-siecle fatalism of the last decade.

Andrew Taylor once wrote he felt it was counter productive for arts organizations to never admit any program supported by a grant did not perform as planned or better.

“It’s an insight as old as theater — conflict, flaw, and tension are what make narratives compelling. And yet, read through most arts marketing materials or grant applications and what will you find? Perfection, triumph, success, and positive spin. Their performances are always exceptional. Their audiences are always ecstatic. Their reviews are always resounding (or mysteriously missing from the packet). Their communities are always connected and enthralled. In short, they are superhuman, disconnected, and insincere.”

I would say the same is true with audiences. We advertise everything we do as the most exciting and seminal work they will ever see but never concede audiences may not be in ecstasy every moment they are in the theatre. As a result, audiences expect to be in ecstasy and may either decide there is something wrong with them for not feeling amazed or decide they have been had by a bunch of B.S.

One of my favorite episodes in Drew McManus’ “Take A Friend To The Orchestra” program came about 6 years ago when Drew took the brother of WNYC Sound Check host, John Schaefer, to a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Jerry Schaefer had never been to an orchestral concert before. One of the parts that impressed me the most was that Drew admitted that he often gets bored at times during a concert and that it was okay to be bored at times.

I am not suggesting a full confessional after every performance outlining everything that went wrong. One common theme on this blog has been the idea that we need to speak about the arts experience in everyday life –when we are waiting online in the supermarket, at parties and picnics, in elevators and on buses. I am not talking about announcing your boosterism aloud in public places, but rather getting people to talk about their experiences, fears, anxieties, passions, etc., in relation to the arts. Part of that conversation needs to be acknowledging that, yeah sometimes it is boring; sometimes is it bad; sometimes it is confusing, even for those of us with a lot of experience.

The benefit people in the performing arts have as audience members when it comes to artists who are not household names is that we may often know more about the artist’s reputation than most. We can enter a performance space or gallery with a higher degree of confidence about the experience than others might.

This isn’t a peculiar characteristic of the arts, it just comes with exposure and experience. Sports fans will know what match ups are likely to be most exciting than will a new attendee to a game. Sports fans will recognize when a high stakes situation is developing while a novice allows their attention to wander.

While there are entire cable channels and sections of newspapers dedicated to educating people about why certain sports match ups will be exciting, the Arts and Entertainment channel shifted its focus in other directions and newspapers are dropping their culture reporting. The arts have to mostly rely on word of mouth and those with the most knowledge aren’t really speaking often or in a compelling manner that acknowledges the beauty and the flaws that make the beauty all the more remarkable.

And believe me, I include myself among those not communicating in a basic, honest manner devoid of marketing spin.

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Twitter Thursdays

So we have a production coming up that will have six performances. Because one performance is generally poorly attended, we generally offer some sort of last minute rush promotion requiring people to say a silly phrase to get their discount. Since the audience for this show tends to be younger, I thought I might also experiment and make that night a “social media performance.” Essentially, we would have a night where people would openly be invited to do text friends and update Twitter and Facebook status. The only thing we couldn’t let people do due to intellectual property concerns is record or take pictures.

If it was successful, I might consider expanding it to other performances as appropriate. We don’t get a more than 5-10 people commenting about our shows on social media sites so I wanted to see what would happen if we openly encouraged it. Because most classes were required to see the production the previous week, we wouldn’t see too many grouses about being forced to see the stupid show by a professor.

Knowing that a lot of people don’t like to have those around them leaning over a glowing cell phone, I thought having a specific performance dedicated to the practice might help draw those who liked the practice and allow those who disliked it to attend at other times. It wouldn’t guarantee a texting free environment at all shows, but might lead both groups to feel we recognized their needs.

When I brought the idea up at the weekly production meeting, I thought there might be some resistance. My biggest concern was for the actors who might not get the same audience reactions on that particular evening as they did in other performances due to divided attention. In fact, there might be more conversation at that performance as individuals whisper inquiries about what has transpired after everyone else laughs or gasps. I figured there would have to be some discussion of appropriateness and shifting expectations.

What I hadn’t expected was a vociferous and absolute refusal to perform that night from one of the creative team. The individual was wholly opposed to the practice which he felt was an awful trend and inappropriate at a live performance. He was under no illusion that it wouldn’t happen anyway regardless of what we did, and perhaps become more common and widespread, he just didn’t want to be party to an effort to encourage people to do it.

I think this is just part of a set of concerns that has existed for awhile and may become more prevalent soon enough. Do we diminish the performance by validating something outside of the usual practice? For orchestras, it has been projection of video images in support of the music in some way. In theatre it has been stunt casting of television/movie/pop music figures in stage performances. This isn’t just about Broadway casting choice. All across the country weather forecasters and football heroes get cast in the hope that their popularity will bring more butts to the seats. I am not sure what the characteristic corresponding situation would be in fine arts and dance.

In many ways this is different. Those elements, for better or for worse, are part of the artistic product. It may be cheapening the product to dilute it in this manner in the name of getting more attendance. It is another thing to encourage people to ignore the performance entirely to tell their friends to come to the show.

In one of my favorite Take A Friend To The Orchestra outings, Drew McManus takes a guy to a concert in Carnegie Hall. Drew tells him it is okay to be bored during some portions of the performance and I think brings binoculars so he can look more closely at the musicians during these times. Even though Drew says it is okay to be bored and not entirely engaged by the performance, his suggested alternatives encourage his companion to try to remain involved even if the music isn’t finding purchase in his ear.

Encouraging people to text sends the message that is okay to be bored, but encourages them to disengage themselves from the performance entirely without making the attempt to involve themselves in some other aspect of the experience and give the performance a chance to connect and draw them back.

I know I sound like I am siding with the objector against something I proposed doing. But this is really a matter of the two sides of my identity as an arts professional in conflict. From the marketing standpoint, allowing people to tell their friends about their experience can improve attendance. Not just as a matter of simple recommendation, but as a way for experimenters to lead their more wary friends to new experiences.

But it changes the way people are interacting with the arts in some undesirable ways. If people are viewing a performance in terms of what they can report on every few minutes, there isn’t any time given to digest the experience. There are many inveterate arts professionals who aren’t really sure what they thought about a show until the next morning. If you view a performance as a loaf of bread to comment on a slice at a time, you may never see the golden beauty of the loaf as a whole. You decide that Helen Mirren as Prospero is dumb when she first appears in The Tempest and then look for the next moment to comment on, and then the next and the next, you may miss what Julie Taymor was trying to do with the story.

Is this the way we want to encourage people to approach their experience with art? Mediated through the lens of whether what just happened was interesting enough to report to their friends at the expense of missing/incompletely comprehending what happens next? I remember reading about how certain actors in Shakespeare’s time were judged masterful when the girls wandering the aisles stopped hawking oranges. Will the power of a show be judged not by a standing ovation, the value of which seems to have degraded of late, but by the fact people were so entranced that they stopped texting?

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My TAFTO Favs

Next week the entries for this year’s Take A Friend To The Orchestra Month (TAFTO) begin. I have always enjoyed reading this series, even before I had any association with Drew McManus or joined Inside the Arts. There have been a couple entries from the past that have really stuck in my mind. While you are waiting for this year’s installments, I thought I would post a couple links to some of my favorite entries.

Nothing should be read into the fact that I haven’t included entries from 2008. These are my favorites and I make no pretense at being egalitarian. Nor am I being modest by excluding my own contributions. This is a list of the entries that popped out at me and remained in my memory over the years. Last year’s entries were just fine and whet my appetite for the 2009 batch.

2005

I really enjoyed some of the earliest entries because they focused on some of the rules for attending the orchestra. Really many of them can easily be applied to attending any arts activity whether it be performance or visual arts experience.

For this reason, Kyle Gann and Sam Bergman’s entries back in 2005 are among my favorites. They approach some of the intimidating aspects of attendance with honesty and humor.

One of the entries that I immediately associate with the whole TAFTO initiative was the WNYC interview on Soundcheck when Drew took Soundcheck host John Schaefer’s brother, Jerry to a Bartok performance at Carnegie Hall. The interview, which may be downloaded here, requires RealPlayer to play. In my view, the interview constitutes the most effective entry in the TAFTO effort. Jerry speaks with complete candor about how he only liked 2/3 of the experience. If I only had one entry to choose to help me convince someone to attend an orchestra performance, this would be the one because the listener can be most guaranteed that they are receiving an honest appraisal, realize they probably possess the capacity to evaluate and enjoy the experience, and recognize they have permission to be bored and not enjoy every moment.

2006

In this batch of writing, I liked Jerry Bowles account of how he and his wife had cultivated an appreciation of culture in general in his nephew by treating him like an adult. His entry serves to remind all arts people that appreciation of our products is a gradual process rather than an instantaneous event. Also, getting to that point requires communication, patience and trust that people will find their way rather than needing a dumbed down approach.

Kevin Giglinto’s entry traveled along the same lines, except that he spoke about his personal interactions with music that took him from Led Zeppelin through Husker Du and Sonic Youth to working for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). When he first encountered Led Zeppelin, Husker Du and Sonic Youth, he had no doubts about his relationship with the music. Even though each initial experience challenged what he knew, he believed in his capacity to comprehend it.

The prospect of working for CSO intimidated the hell out of him though.

“I probably felt the same perceived barriers that people have in their minds today that stop them from entering the doors for the first time. I asked myself the same questions I know they are asking:

“What if I don’t understand the music?”
“Will I appreciate it less without that understanding?”
“Is this music really for me, given what I usually listen to?”

Then came the first performance I attended. On the program was Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony…When the music ended, and the audience erupted with applause, I realized that all the questions I had in my head prior to the experience were irrelevant. It was the music. It took me over with the same incredible rush that I experienced with The Who, The Clash or whoever else occupied my musical drive. It was the music.”

I can’t leave 2006 without mentioning Alex Shapiro’s “screw the rules, let them wear party hats” post which I believe is still one of the most commented upon entries on the Adaptistration blog. The entry remains a must read. Alex’s point is essentially that one generally doesn’t prepare to go to a rock concert being overly concerned about hearing the lyrics much less grasping the whatever imagery and metaphor they invoke but we are pleased if we do. Going to a classical music performance should be approached in the same anxiety free manner.

And if you are thinking, yeah but at a rock concert, part of the excitement is hoping some hot guy/girl will bump into while screaming “Wahooooo!!!!”, Alex is right there with you wishing it would happen in our symphony halls.

I also enjoyed Pete Matthews recounting of his visits to three different classical music events with the same friend in the course of a month. It was just a nice, comparison of the types of music you can hear and the sort of places you could hear it. I was most encouraged by the quality experience they had in a high school auditorium given they also attended at Avery Fisher and Carnegie Halls.

2007

James Palermo, General Director of Grant Park Music Festival caught my attention with his vow not to apologize for loving classical music. I think a lot of us have found ourselves falling into the same mindset and needing to pull ourselves out.

Then I read a quote attributed to the great soprano Leontyne Price about the value of the arts. I’ll never forget it:

“We should not have a tin cup out for something as important as the arts in this country, the richest in the world. Creative artists are always begging, but always being used when it’s time to show us at our best.”

When a President dies, at the funeral we feature the hottest opera star singing Amazing Grace. When the media wants to associate something with class or value, it invariably uses baroque or classical era music. If a marketer wants to conjure up grandeur or power, it’s Verdi’s Anvil Chorus or Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries.

So, I vowed to stop apologizing for loving and understanding classical music. Whenever I hear negative comments from friends or colleagues, I remind them that the music is enjoyable, revelatory and full of great things for anyone who is open enough to experience it without prejudice, regardless of social class or race.

One of the most singular posts in the TAFTO was produced by Bill Harris who engaged in an extensive analysis about whether Take A Friend To The Orchestra Month was a worthwhile endeavor. His work is so insightful and unlike any other entry in the TAFTO series, it is impossible to ignore.

Hope you took a look at some of these past entries and will join the fun over at Adaptistration next week for the new installments!

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Heading To Other Shores

I was pleased when Ron Spigelman over at Sticks and Drones chose to start Take A Friend to the Orchestra Month by acknowledging the poise with which the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra musicians and administration were conducting business in tough economic times in contrast with the tensions other classical music organizations were facing. Granted with their pay six weeks in arrears, the moral victory didn’t go very far in putting food on the Honolulu musician’s tables or paying their mortgages, but at least they had the consolation that someone noticed and appreciated their approach to the situation.

Unfortunately, things may be getting a little tougher for the symphony. The Honolulu Symphony announced yesterday that Executive Director Tom Gulick will step down when his three year contract expires on June 30. (Seems like it was just last year I was heralding his arrival.) Gulick has been credited with doing much to increase the financial support and income of the symphony. Whether he is leaving of his own accord or because the board decided he hasn’t done enough is unknown to me at this time. In any case, this leaves the symphony without executive leadership for a time and requires the expenditure of time and dwindling resources to search for another.

Though if you think about it, Honolulu’s composure might work to its benefit. If you are a potential executive director, you know just about any organization you join in this financial climate is likely to be in tenuous financial shape. Wouldn’t you be more inclined to interview with an organization which has proved it can resist the general trend toward acrimonious relations between administration/board and musicians? (Not that living in Hawaii doesn’t have its appeal as well.)

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