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.

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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