Come for the Swing, Stay for the Classical

I was reading my Time Magazine today while my computer booted up, hoping that my cable modem would behave today (that was why there was no entry yesterday. No problem yet today, perhaps the Time-Warner cable approves of me reading Time Magazine) In the magazine there was a small inset on Artie Shaw, a big band leader who died last month. (More info, the NY Times and Ken Burns’ PBS Jazz website have interesting synopses of his life.)

I found the article somewhat amusing because it discussed how he was trying to expose his swing audiences to classical music, similiar to how arts organizations try to grab new audiences by offering popular pieces and hoping people will experiment with unfamiliar territory.

Shaw’s experience went something like this:

“Bandleader Artie Shaw had tried feeding long-hair music to short hair audiences, [but] he had discovered that ‘It is necessary to give an audience some familiar points of reference before you can expect it to go along on new things’…He thought…playing old Shaw specials…might lure strayed followers back into the tent. Once they were in, perhaps he could give them [classical works] in small doses. Last week…on the opening night of a nationwide tour, the first part of Artie’s experiment worked. A record breaking crowd, including a good many of the jammy jitterbug type..was lured into Boston’s huge Symphony Ballroom. The Shaw faithful, plus a few horn rimmed jazz intellectuals, clustered around the bandstand…Right there, any semblance of success stopped. When Artie’s boys began unraveling Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera, the crowd around the bandstand applauded politely, but even the most ardent jitterers had to stop dancing. Cried one in petulant exasperation: ‘Artie you suck'”

I don’t know if arts managers will take heart in the fact that hurdles they face in widening the perspective of their audiences are nothing new. Or if they will see this article from 1949 as validation that their efforts are hopeless.

If I Can Only Keep Connected…

Okay, I have been having the dangest time with my cable modem keeping a connection so I am gonna make this quick and hope I can squeeze it in before things break down again.

Courtesy of I found a great article on arts education in the spirit of the one I found locally a month or so ago. This one is in Minneapolis/St.Paul where the program is using the arts to teach critical thinking skills. The article points out that in an age when schools need to meet standardized testing, the skills gained are hard to quantify, though certainly valuable in the job market if they are cultivated.

As I am trying to be brief, all I will say is please, read it. And maybe drop a line to the paper praising them for spending so much space in the Sunday paper to discuss this topic.

In a related story, a study by the University of York has found that teaching students grammar actually has very little beneficial effect on the quality of the students’ writing. What does improve writing skills–getting the students to do a lot of writing.

Just like the first story–it is hard to objectively measure the benefits on a standardized test, though good writing skills are definitely marketable.

I talk about marketable skills because that seems to be the big gripe of job seekers and employers–college doesn’t seem to be providing students with marketable skills (I can do a whole series of blogs expressing my thoughts on that topic). As much as I am leery about the whole No Child Left Behind thing, I have to admit, whatever the schools were doing before wasn’t working too well. Students’ abilities and habits were so ill suited to college, the only benefit I could see was that my own skills would be in higher demand as time progressed.

At this point, if I can convince students to cultivate their critical thinking and expressive powers by using money as an incentive, I will toss the phrase “marketable skills” around until it goes passe and comes back into vogue again.

Theatre Blogs

I talk a lot about the power of blogs for theatre, but other than the ones at, I haven’t seen too many.

Well, thanks to the power of google, I found a handful. The first I found was an entry appropriately entitled “Where Are The Theatre Blogs?” People who made comments to the entry actually pointed out a few to look at which was lucky because I never saw them listed on Google.

One of the best examples of what I championed in earlier entries about artists blogging about the process they go through can be found on my London life. The blog is currently following Paul Miller, a London based director (and author) who is in the process of directing a play in Japan. He has been blogging since August and has been really regular in his writing about his process and artistic experiences. Clicking back to November, one finds he had flown out then to cast the show, flew back to the UK and then back to Japan in January to direct. Guy has to be exhausted!

One of the most surprising links I came across was a story on Elisa Camahort who is not only a professional blogger–paid to blog for a company–but she is being paid to blog for 3 theatre companies in the San Francisco Bay Area! I haven’t really read the different blogs in their entireity. The recent focus seems to be on news about the theatres’ current and upcoming seasons and theories about acting, marketing, etc. I will be reading a bit more as I have time. (One of the best things about writing a blog–you can follow your own links to do additional research!)

I also found a person with a blog connected to Shakespeare Magazine. The blog covers stories about Shakespeare productions and projects in the US and UK. It also lists stories about the Bard himself, including recent articles about the writer having syphilis (and stories refuting that theory)

There are some interesting discussions about art coming from Canadian sources as well on a website called The Flying Monkey. While the author admits that the discussion is dying down (though there is apparently more occuring on a message board), what was really interesting is the stated purpose of the blog–“An online discussion, from the point of view of the performing arts, about the audience: who they are, what they want and what we can give them. Excerpts from this discussion will be reprinted in Ruby Slippers Theatre’s annual publication, The Flying Monkey, at the discretion of Guest Editor Adrienne Wong.”
(06/09- The old blog is gone, replaced by a new one which does not have any of the old conversations.)

I thought it was really interesting that they would include the discussion in a print publication as well. As many people as there are reading blogs, etc online, it is good to remember that there are a lot of passionate supporters out there who aren’t online and they deserve to be included in the dialogue in some fashion from time to time.

Last theatre blog I wanted to direct folks to is not for live performance, but actually a movie theatre. Some intrepid folks apparently quit their high paying corporate jobs right around Christmas and moved to Springfield, MO to renovate and open a small movie house. They basically discuss every step of the project from applying to get a Small Business Administration loan to deciding how what type of soda to serve and the size seats to put in the theatre. (You want a lesson in economics, check out the Jan 8 entry –unfortunately they don’t have a way to link directly to the entry)

Say What?

Even before I took my current position, I was familiar with the unique situations one might run into while working for a theatre in a university setting. There are the competitive bids you must solicit for everything, the triplicate forms, the purchase order process and four week wait for people to be paid.

Then there is the fact the state doesn’t like to pay for services in advance of receiving them. If you are using Equity actors you often must post a bond and as I noted yesterday, when you present performances, you often have to pay deposits in advance. Many times you end up explaining that this is the usual way of doing business over and over to people.

Today there was a bit of a new twist. A person from the business office comes over and says I have to sign a statement on the purchase order saying that I will personally reimburse the university if it pays the deposit and the artist doesn’t perform. Now given that the deposit is usually at least $5,000 or more, that isn’t something I really want to be responsible for.

I have never had a performer fail to perform. However, I am sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific. Just regular problems with airplanes can pose a problem much less other acts of God, war, strike and all the other variables found in a force majeure clause. Most force majeure clauses stipulate that an artist will return the deposit less any expenses. Given that purchasing airline tickets to Hawaii will probably eat up the deposit amount by itself, the chance of me retrieving the deposit in such a situation is probably slim to none.

I lodge a complaint to my division chair who is as incredulous as I. He says to check with my counterparts at other campuses to see if they face the same problem. I heard back from one of them before I left for the day and his answer left me even more flabbergasted. He does sign the reimbursement pledge when he pays deposits–however he often crosses that part of a contract out so he only pays when he really has to. Now this is the same guy who crosses out the catering portion of hospitality riders so I am wondering how the heck he manages to get anyone to perform for him at all.

I guess all my talk yesterday about the basic requirements one will have to meet for most presenting situation has quite a few more exceptions to the rule than I thought. I need to talk to some more people though. I really don’t want to sign the thing, but I also don’t want to eliminate a whole pool of potential performers too because the university won’t pay a deposit.