Reflections On Many Recent Arts Experiences

I know that my season is starting to wind down when I actually have time to get out and see other people’s performances. We who work in the arts are frequently told that if we want to stay at the peak of our powers, we should always being seeing things. When you are in the middle of your season, you tend to think that you see lots of performances because you are watching a lot of different things.

The problem is, the frame of mind you are in when you watch your own show isn’t the same as when you watch someone else’s. You are thinking about arrangements that still need to be made. You are noticing things the ushers should be doing better and trying to commit that list to memory so you can attend to it during a break. You are generally less free and open to the experience. Some times you just need to go somewhere else and have the experience free of this baggage so you can progress in your own skills and abilities.

Two Fridays ago I went to see a show that contained two pieces from a work being developed to premiere on our stage this coming October. It was a nice time and I chatted with some potential donors. Granted, it wasn’t entirely free of associations with work, but not paying for any part of the production or reception certainly frees the mind of some concerns. A sentiment that one of my colleagues from another arts organization also expressed to me.

This past Friday I went to the First Friday art walk to watch excerpts for the Celebrity Project show that is opening this coming weekend. We were trying to drum up interest in the show but also gauge what did and didn’t work. I sidling up to eavesdrop on people talking about the pieces. Pretty much all our spies overheard comments on the same issues and a revamp is in the works on a couple sections.

Saturday I went to see a Fijian group that had been brought in by the East-West Center arts program as part of the celebration of their 50th Anniversary. Before the show we were told that what we were about to see was the real deal and not something that had been altered to be more palatable for tourists.

This became apparent when the group finished their first song and then went up stage and sat down in a semi-circular huddle and continued to sing–backs turned to the audience–for another five minutes. The audience seemed mostly bemused to be ignored by the performers for that period.

During this, I had a quick cascade of thoughts:

-Hmm, maybe something like this would constitute a new approach to performances.

-No, wait, this is the opposite of the current thinking. Not only is it framed in the proscenium, it moves away from interactivity and getting the audience more invested in the performance. In fact, it is actually more alienating.

-Hey, isn’t that sort of synchronous? They are performing on platforms being built for a show by the father of alienation, Berthold Brecht. Hmm, now that I think about it, someone has probably already staged a show that makes no concessions to the needs of the audience at all, ignoring and alienating them.

-Actually, this sort of activity is probably very interactive and communal in Fiji which is why they are gathered together in a circle.  Since it isn’t designed to appease tourists, we are probably just in the wrong setting to experience it in the correct manner.

Anyway, after about five minutes the men got up and started dancing and the show went on from there. Different groups would get up to dance while those that finished moved back to the circle.

The singing never stopped continuing through the transitions between dancing groups. There would be a momentary pause as they shifted between songs. But the pauses were so brief that when combined with the split second tableaux the dancers would freeze into, the audience was generally uncertain when to clap.

I began to understand why attendees of classical music get so irked by applause at the wrong times. Breaks between movements are about 20 times longer than the minuscule pauses the Fijians took to pose and continue the same dance. Yet someone had to leap in and start clapping. By the third time I was muttering under my breath for people to wait a couple more beats by which time it would be clear if it was the end of the piece or just a designated pose point.

I have to give the Fijians a lot of props for their stamina and breath control. They sang continuously for 90 minutes without amplification. The only time a person didn’t sing was when they were dancing energetically around the stage. But then they sat back down and started singing again never appearing winded by their recent exertion.

The final interesting artistic encounter came today. The lobby of my building has a gorgeous 104′ x 23′ fresco mural by Jean Charlot. It is one of the last pieces he did before he died. Today his son came by to show the piece a muralist from Barcelona. I am very proud of the mural and I want to know everything I can about it so I brought my lunch to the lobby to see if I could learn anything new from Charlot’s son. There were some new revelations. Included were some fairly obvious motifs staring me right in the face I hadn’t recognized.

What I really appreciated was how passionately and eloquently the muralist from Barcelona spoke (either that or the translator was good at embellishing). He spoke of murals being the most primitive form of art dating back to cave walls. He talked about murals being the precursor of movies. He spoke of how in days when literacy was less widespread, murals told stories with sequences of images. However, unlike movies in which the sequence of event is set down by someone else, with a mural you can create your own story by choosing which image you will view next.

It occurred to me later that this activity is already in practice with people creating mash ups of other people’s work. As processing speeds increase in our various electronic devices, perhaps it will become even more prevalent. The problem today is that the person who created the original can become angry if people re-mix their work and share it with others. With a mural, the experience is much more personal within your own head or limited to whatever group you can gather around you to listen as you point out how you have re-imagined the sequence of events.

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. (

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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