Smart Thinkin’

When I was looking around the Memphis Manifesto website the other day, I came across a June 2003 Smart City interview with Ben Cameron who is currently the Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group. TCG does advocacy and surveys on theatre, promotes some educational initiatives and publishes drama texts, American Theatre magazine and ArtSEARCH. The last publication has been one of my near companions in my job search efforts.

I any case, I stopped subscribing to American Theatre some time ago because it wasn’t delivering anything new of significance to me. However, listening to Ben Cameron, I wonder if I should revisit the publication. If nothing else, I am going to listen to more of these Smart City interviews.

He discusses that in the past the focus of the arts has been on presenting quality. Trying to figure out how to do it all better than in the past. This has been reflected by one of the key evaluations of the work–the newspaper review which has discussed the merits of performances based on the quality.

He says when he was working for Target Stores as Manager of Community Relations the message he often got was that the focus needs to be on presenting the value of attendance. Certainly, the work has to be of the highest quality, but just like Target, if people don’t see any value in walking through the doors, they never get to see the quality offerings within. He comments that this has only been recently that the arts have begun having a discussion on the value of a cultural experience.

There are 4 areas of value he says:

1) Economic-money spent by the organization and those who patronize the institutions contribute to the economic well-being of a community.

2) Education- arts benefits have manifested in studies showing that high risk students are more likely to participate in math and science, disciplinary problems and absences decrease, graduation rates increase.

3) Community Cohesion- Exposure to cultural expression increases tolerance for racial differences.

4) Civic Vitality- Cites Richard Florida studies of how creative classes contribute to municipal health.

I understandably interested in what he said after the interviewer asked him to discuss a talk he made at a Ford Foundation event that referred to how vaudeville theatre owners reacted to the emergence of film. So much of what he said reinforces topics I have read about and written on.

He echoed a fair portion of the pre-Ford Foundation history of the arts noted in the Leverage Lost… article I cited. (When I originally cited that paper I never realized it would end up having a recurring significance on a weekly basis!) He talked about how the number of professional stock theatres plumetted and how arts production shifted to the non-profit system we have today.

Cameron refers to a book titled The Radical Center: The Future of American Politicsby Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. It is difficult to transcribe the gist of his commentary on the book, but in brief, the authors noted that historically when there is war, technological change and a shift in rural-urban demographics (Civil War, Depression-WW II, etc) the tendency for the American people is to alter the social compact.

Cameron agrees with the authors that we are in the middle of a period when we will reinvent the social contract. Thinking that you can “just keep your head down” and weather the stormy economy may not be a viable strategy for continued success. He feels the challenge faced today is determining what social forces to pay attention to so we are prepared for how the situation realigns rather than waiting and trying to play catch up.

Among the examples he uses of theatres making preparations for the shifting expectations is the shifting of performance times on some nights to 6:00 or 7:00 instead of the traditional 8:00 curtain. They are doing this to in response to people’s work and travel schedules and have met with success. This allows people to go to a performance right from work and still be home to kiss the kids good night by 8 or 9pm.

He also notes that some theatres are opening their rehearsals to the public. People are curious to see the process and learn how things come together. (A subject I broached back in February.) Some theatres are apparently taking the Today Show route and rehearsing on street level in a room with a plate glass window. Others are rehearsing outdoors or inviting people in.

The move has required a revamping of rules and expectations. Cameron gives the example of Anne Bogart’s company (I assume SITI. He doesn’t mention the name.) She tried it for a production and the actors apparently screamed at her at the end of the first rehearsal. She asked them to stick with it three weeks. They had to establish some ground rules for this new way of doing things. Among the questions they had were whether they should be playing to the audience or to the director.

He doesn’t mention the answer, but it occurs to me that as simple as the question might be, it does indeed represent a complex situation. Rehearsals are about the director and actors communicating with one another on many levels. Performances are about the actors and audience communicating. Audiences would have to understand they wouldn’t be getting that communication. Actors would have to remember that a choice they made that got a pleasing audience reaction might not be a valid part of the director’s vision for the production.

The upshot of the decision though is a positive one. The actors told Anne Bogart they never wanted to rehearse any other way in the future. They saw exciting possibilities associated with having the people for whom they were making the work in the same room as them.

Other strategies have been to redesign the physical plant adding cafes, etc to make the theatre a social destination and not just a place you go to see a play. “Theatres thinking not about just how do we make a performance, but asking bigger questions like how do we orchestra social interaction in which the performance is a piece, but only a piece of what we are called to do.”

He goes on to talk about the importance of arts organizations to “open our embrace to the fullest spectrum of the inhabitants of our cities and towns.” He speaks not only about non-traditional casting and producing shows that have resonance with different segments of the population, but also in encouraging people of diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in the management end of the arts where they can make active contributions.

As I stated earlier, an interesting interview that I am glad I listened to out of curiousity. Some fodder for thought.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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