Return From Detroit

So I am back from my Wayne State interview. It was very exciting and quite a valuable experience in terms of simply having a forum to explain my views on theatre management theory and practice and how to teach it. It certainly sounds different when you are talking about it than when it is part of an internal dialogue.  Honestly, in some cases I was surprised at how intelligent the words coming out of my mouth sounded. Inevitably, some of it didn’t sound as good or I couldn’t explain as clearly as I would have liked.

The program at Wayne State seems to be a very good one and I would certainly like to be affliated with it. Apparently their approach is bucking the current thinking about theatre training and their U/RTA membership is in jeopardy. To me, their program seems like a valid alternative and more valuable to the students than being in a program that does the bare minimum to be in compliance. If nothing else, my visit has provided more subject matter to mull over and present here on the blog.

I apparently hadn’t completely understood a question one of the faculty asked me. Another staff member clarified his intent later and I was a little disappointed because it was in relation to a topic I had given some thought to and could have answered more clearly than I had.

The question was in relation to attracting an audience to the theatre which was better reflective of the population of Detroit which identifies itself as 85% African-American. It is certainly a difficult question and not one I am entirely comfortable about answering given that I am white and discussing the behavior of other races is risky.

Still, it is a valid area of concern and one I have thought about because I believe theatre managers should devote some consideration to solutions in this area regardless of their race. We are among the best educated about an arts organization’s abilities and options. If we don’t think about these things, who will? I believe there is a greater sincerity in the intent of arts organizations to involve and expose diverse audiences to their product than in the motivation of most companies and politicans to attract the same groups to their products and causes.

The following is an excerpt of an email I sent him today. I believe it is a fair assessment of the situation and doesn’t make terribly erroneous or biased statements about the way things stand. I think the biggest argument against it could be is that I (and my questioner) are implying that different races should be valuing/assimilated into the entertainment choices of caucasians. This is certainly a valid point and one could engage in a lengthy debate about the value and validity of European based entertainment for people who come from outside that tradition and the benefits that caucasians can derive from exposure to multicultural arts At the moment I am only trying to find one solution for a small piece of the larger puzzle and debate. It is starting point in terms of pursuing a goal of attracting a more diverse audience for any tradition.

I wrote:

The answer, of course, is not an easy one. It is a matter that I have given some thought to over time. I have perception/theory (you may have actual evidence and feedback as a result of your efforts), that the problem is partly a matter of acculturation. There is the often cited idea that only rich, educated people attend arts events because tickets are more expensive than movies and the arts can be intimidating to understand. However, walking into a theatre, it doesn’t take much effort to conclude that only rich, educated, white people attend arts events.

I think it is easier for a caucasian to one day make the decision to start attending arts events and surmount the intimidation factor because they saw it was something their parents valued (even if they tried to rebel against all their parents stood for) or it allows them to make social contacts that will advance their career or even as a result of some idea that attendance is what one does when one reaches a certain stage in life. Even if it is not an overt influence, there is a subliminal influence of shared cultural values that may not exist as much in other racial communities. If you aren’t white and you walk in to a theatre and see who is on stage and in the audience, it is not hard to imagine there is a subliminal influence against you attending

In addition to all the things I said yesterday, I would add that attracting an audience can be a matter of tapping the resource of opinion leaders, whether it be newspapers and radio stations that serve a racial niche, or actual people. The thing that springs to mind first is churches. This is a good place to look across the board since people who are invested in regularly attending events together can be a desirable group. The fact that presidential candidates are going to churches to woo the black vote is pretty strong evidence that they are places of influence.

Theatres often invite tour operators, critics and other decision makers/people of influence to shows they are trying to promote. It might be useful to invite ministers to shows or rehearsals, have a dinner/reception before hand, provide them with educational and informational packets, talk to them about the shows and answer questions. Essentially make it easy for them to recommend the shows to other people.

Of course, there has to be a commitment to presenting suitable shows across a season. Having a single show that has a particular resonance with a group and expecting people to become enamored of your usual fare is akin to the PGA trying toget more men interested in watching golf by televising women in tight shorts and skimpy tops playing one weekend and then going back to the regular schedule the next.

As I am certain you are aware, there is a fairly limited canon of shows that might be of interest to specific groups, even including shows with universal themes which can be cast using people with a similar racial background as your target audience. And because there are so few shows like this, it is difficult to cast shows with diversity. Therefore, fewer non-whites find satisfaction in being an actor which provides fewer faces audience members can identify with on stage which keeps the audience more homogenous.

It is the old Catch-22. Audiences want to see people/themes they can identify with, actors want to see audiences and perform roles they can identify with, theatres are more willing to produce shows that will have an audience to sustain it, those shows present themes their current audience base can closely identify with. I am sure I am not telling you anything you don’t already know or haven’t considered.

Actually, if any training program has a chance of success in attracting a diverse audience, it is Wayne State. I met/saw more diversity among undergrad and grad actors there than anywhere else I have been. Of course, the truth might be that I met all the actors in both programs. When I was at the X Conservatory in Y, they had a terrible time trying to maintain diversity in their program. Because of the limited role choices, etc. many of the men and women they admitted didn’t feel fulfilled by their experience and left the program in their first or second year in search of another program that might serve them better.

I don’t have any short term solution for the problem. It is all a matter of what I was saying in the meeting yesterday. Repeated exposure to a topic/way of thinking can slowly alter perceptions and plant positive associations about the theatre in people’s minds. There has to be a long term commitment to putting the right combination of people and shows on stage, putting the touring company in front of the right groups, bringing in the right matinee groups. Eventually you hope the message will come across that the theatre is financially, geographically, intellectually, socially, etc accessible to audiences.

I don’t know if this helps at all, but perhaps it will provide some clarity and inspiration that will allow you to arrive at a solution of your own.”

Anyone with other viable solutions? Let me know.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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