Connecting To Your Community

The arts blogosphere (or at least a small corner thereof) is abuzz with joy with the news that Scott Walters received NEA funding for his <100k Project. As noted on the <100k Project site, the purpose "is an attempt to 'bring the arts back home” to small and rural communities with populations under 100,000.'"

I come from a rural town and have something of an interest in the project's success for sentimentality sake, if nothing else. I think I would be pleased for Scott regardless of my background. The <100k Project has been percolating in Scott's head and on his blog for quite some time now. I am glad to see he is able to move forward toward implementation. (The grant he received is to convene people to address the issues he wants to tackle.)

One of the things I hope to learn by monitoring his progress is strategies for reconnecting one’s community. I am currently in a small city/suburban setting and every community is different so I don’t expect to take things whole cloth. It is just that the late arrival/early departure issues that lead me to opine on an audience’s responsibility to a community continue and are ever irksome. Mostly it is due to this being the time of year when we have a lot of events where performers’ friends and family attend. Most stick around for the whole show but a large number, 50-80, arrive late and depart early.

Friday night I saw a group departing where one woman energetically exclaimed that the piece that just finished was surprisingly good. I noted there were still more high quality pieces to come. She shrugged, said “meh” and continued out with her friends. I don’t discount the influence of the group over the individual. Had she been alone, she might have stayed. It should also be noted that the event hardly fell in the “sit quietly and appreciate the cerebral high art” category. The audience was energetic and expressive.

I mention this because while I do believe an audience member does have a responsibility to the whole, I don’t believe the behavior necessarily has to conform to a traditional status of sitting quietly in a dark room. Attending a performance is a communal relationship between the audience and the performers. It should be approached with the intent of arriving on time and staying until the end. Various factors may conspire to thwart this intent. I know that in the early days attending was a social event and a place to be seen. That doesn’t mean today it should be viewed as a party where you arrive late, stay long enough to be considered to have made an appearance and depart. If a person is going to a performance, it should be with the intent to stay. It represents a commitment to the entire community assembled there.

None of this is to say performing arts organizations shouldn’t meet their audiences part way. From everything I have recently described about my experience, the reader can rightly point out that expectations about the attendance experience are changing. Opportunities for greater interactivity can and should be explored. There are plenty of scenarios where one need not commit to sitting immobile or staying the entire time.

I don’t want to wax too poetic while idealizing the relationship between performers and the audience and among themselves as a sublime sacrament. I think it is that sort of thinking created the idea was the audience’s place to sit quietly and receive.

Yet in a time when people mediate their day to day experience through phones, texting, iPods, computers, televisions and the like, a communal gathering for a shared experience becomes more precious and can verge on the sacramental so the items of distraction should be laid aside. There is nothing wrong with sitting quietly and absorbing an experience be it at a performance, in a gallery or a mountain top. The key difference is that the audience should want to do so rather than be expected to do so. I think the time is past when arts organizations can directly tell people how they are supposed to behave and cultivate a constructive relationship. People don’t want to learn how to be poised and cultured too much any more.

I believe success will be a matter of reinforcing certain values in a more indirect manner. It will be phrases used in speeches, press releases, program notes and brochures. Hopefully it won’t be the same phrases in every community because every arts organization and dynamic with their community is different. I will be working on formulating ways to deliver these concepts. It is also the sort of thing I hope Scott Walters’ project will generate.

Sitting quietly in the dark doesn’t necessarily have to be a passive experience. If you know what you are looking for it can be very exciting and intriguing. Before I go any further, let me just say that nothing ruined the experience of attending a performance like knowing I had to write a paper about it. Audiences need to be informed so they can process the experience but their education can’t leave them paranoid about analyzing every moment to find some answer.

Having gotten that out of the way..

Live performances, as with movies and video games, have had the lighting, sound, costumes intentionally designed in a certain way. How aware you are of these elements and how they affect your experience can enhance your enjoyment. The same with the decisions made by the director and performers. Was that pause for dramatic effect? Were lines forgotten? Are things so disorganized back stage, there is a long empty moment? Or is it a trick to make us think things are going wrong?

It doesn’t require years of education to ask these questions, just an awareness that these factors play a part of a live performance. Recognizing these elements, but not knowing what the reality might be can make any performance experience, including those in movies and television exciting. But the uncertainty of live performance combined with the inability to rewind and scrutinize makes that experience all the more engaging. And there is the added opportunity of tracking a live person down after the show to ask. Making people available to illuminate the situation, even if it is by email a day or two later, is added value for audiences. Good performance discipline requires you don’t acknowledge a flub during the show, but there is no need to grin foolishly and own up to it afterward.

But as an audience member if you arrive late, leave early and spend the interim texting you can miss these things and keep your mind from processing and pondering what is happening. So yeah, for you it is probably boring. But this is a communal experience you are likely also keeping others from doing the same with all the motion. Or maybe the whole thing is poorly done and incredibly boring or bad and you are within your rights to get up, leave and do something else.

Before you do, be sure you aren’t confusing something you don’t understand with poor quality. I think Kyle Gann said it best in his entry for Take A Friend to the Orchestra Month back in 2005. Insert whatever you are seeing for classical music references.

…At the same time, keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of musical enjoyment, some of them perhaps unrecognizable as such simply because you haven’t experienced them yet. What I always noticed, starting out, was that if a piece bored me, it was likely to always bore me, but if it irritated me, something interesting was going on.

Probably the reason I became a musician was that I kept going back to the pieces that irritated me to figure out why anyone would write something that’s irritating..

It is not the composer’s job to come up with things that you like (because who, working in his studio, can predict that?), but it is his or her job (though a lot of
bad composers deny this) to be clear and communicative. If you get the idea of the piece, the composer has succeeded, and the idea is yours to like or not. Again, watch your reaction – but don’t assume that your immediate reaction is the only important one. As far as I’m concerned, a forgettable piece is bad, but one I’m still thinking about three days later must have something going for it.

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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