Water, Water Everywhere

So my next production is an in-house show, Metamorphoses, by Mary Zimmerman. She adapts Ovid, not Kafka so there are no giant cockroaches on stage. There is, however, a giant pool of water. Water being a great metaphor for change is really appropriate for the production.

The technical worries on the other hand…

The set is essentially a 30′ wide by 25′ long pool of water on two levels. The depth ranges anywhere between 6″-9″ to 24″ in one spot. Water is interesting to work with for a number of reasons, the fact that it is pretty damned heavy, being one of them. The weight bearing capacity of the stage was a real concern.

Of course, another concern is that water will find any opening it can and leak out. The pool liner is one continuous piece which prevents that problem. However, since the change of depth of the pool is fairly extreme and localized to a small area, the aesthetics of a heavily creased liner is a little bit of a concern design wise.

Another discovery we made was that despite our best guesses about how far water would fly during the fight scenes and how much would be displaced when people entered, the water flew farther and ran over the edges and splash guards we had in place. Fortunately, because it was designed to overflow on to the lower level anyway, there wasn’t a big flood. Unfortunately, because the pump hadn’t been installed, the rehearsals had to stop while the water was bucketed up to the top level again.

Needless to say, the show really lends itself to exciting press releases given that there are Greek gods and heroes as well as the Greeks’ very definition of spectacle in the form of the big ole pool of water.

I am just dreading 2-3 years from now when things start warping and rusting…

Some people will say that this retreading of stories is an indicator of how desperate Broadway is to stay alive.

But from my point of view, this is what was always exciting about Greek myths when I first discovered them as a boy. And it also seems better to retread the classics which have the potential of being rediscovered whereas a successful retread of a Disney movie just encourages that company to push for extensions of copyright. (And a really creative adaptation of an out of copyright work like Ovid’s just goes to show how extensive copyright protection may indeed stifle creativity!)

I will let folks know how it all ends up.

Presenting Plus

Wow! Four entries in a week! It is amazing how much more ambitious I feel when I only work 10 hours a day instead of 11.

Anyhow, I thought I might do a reflective entry on some recent experiences. I think I wrote it somewhere in my blog, but I can’t seem to find it at the moment, that one of my biggest priorities for visiting performers is to make them feel comfortable. They are many miles from home, you may be stop 18 on a 30 stop tour. They are tired and perhaps grumpy. The best thing you can do is have everything they need available when they arrive to set their minds at ease.

This seemed even more true now that I am here on Hawai’i. We just had the Flying Karamazov Brothers perform at the theatre and they were really great. However, they were trying to bring a show they did on the Mainland to Hawaii. This had to have caused some angst because they had a great show with fabulous props and now they were faced with having to scale it down and take it with them to keep the costs practical for their island hosts. On the mainland it is a simple matter of tossing things in car trunks or the back of large trucks or buses. But that ain’t gonna happen with 2500 miles of water between you and Hawai’i.

To their credit, they did a great job of bringing their gear and clothes in the same bags and then shuffling it all around on departure so each piece of luggage would be under the 70 lbs limit of the airlines. (Which underscores our need to have scales it seems). There were a couple simply things they forgot which we replaced and a couple things we had they decided they liked so much, they integrated into their show. (Watch for a little mop–that is ours!)

Despite my less than total knowledge of my resources and abilities of my crew, I think I did a fairly credible job of keeping them happy throughout their visit. Hopefully, I will be able to hire an assistant soon so I don’t have to do the credible job alone. It just taught me that I have to anticipate needs even more than usual because the circumstances of people’s arrival may vary and imagination might have to be employed to replace things not readily available on our island kingdom.

I did get an unintential opportunity to be part of the show. I waited in the wings to give them leis during the curtain call and got the cue to go out from their company manager. Only they started running off stage away from me. I break into a run saying “Wait, wait…” holding the leis outstretched. By that point, one of the brothers shouted back that they were coming back out, which they did for another curtain call. The audience loved it though as did most of the crew because it was one of those things you just couldn’t have made look as good if you planned it.

Civic Reflection

An interesting website came to my attention today regarding a practice called Civic Reflection. According to the website, it is “is reading, thinking and talking with each other about our life in community and three fundamental human activities that nourish that life: giving, serving, and leading.”

Looking over the website, I am not quite sure how this practice will help nonprofits and other civic groups more effectively than some other sort of meeting or retreat. The group claims it does. I have a suspicion that its value is in the fact that the practice addresses problems obliquely and doesn’t allow people to set an agenda where blame is handed out and solutions sought.

The website addresses this:

Initially, out of habit, people often think of a problem they want to fix. How can we diversify our boards? How can we get people to give more? These are good questions, but civic reflection is not intended to answer them. It will not tell people “how to” do anything. What civic reflection can do is help participants explore the “what” and “why” -the assumptions, struggles and hopes underneath their questions-deepening their own imaginations and mutual understanding in the process. When people pose “how to” questions (How can we lead the community through change?), listen for the “what” and “why” questions underneath (What leads us to change? Why do we fear change?).

I was initially a bit skeptical about how valuable this process might be to a non-profit given that time constraints don’t normally allow for conversations whose purpose is not to find solutions. In thinking about it, I wondered though if some of the problems non-profits face spring from an Us and Them anxiety– Will they fund us, will they ask me for a donation, will they like our show, will I like/understand this show.

The purpose of this practice seems to be to make everyone Us by removing these barriers and making everyone talk about something else like the human condition in hopes of people developing an empathy and understanding of one another.

The importance of removing these barriers to understanding are found in their FAQ section.

Should there be separate discussions for donors and fundraisers to keep the conversation from getting “awkward”?

No, as long as the ground rules for the conversation are clear. It is imperative to state at the outset that -This is a fundraising-free zone: There will be no solicitations-and no pledge card at the end! With that rule in place, civic reflection can allow a rare and needed conversation to take place across the funding divide. It can help donors and fundraisers to talk with one another about the profound complexities of giving and receiving and to develop greater understanding of their shared work.

Should there be separate discussions for trustees and staff? Executive and other staff?

Again, this is a rare opportunity to build conversation across dividing lines about the purposes of an organization-and to help staff and trustees come to know each other in a fuller way as persons. Therefore, staff should be included if possible. At the same time, it is unwise to allow the executive director of an organization to handpick participants among senior staff. All staff at the same level of responsibility should be invited. (But be neither surprised nor dismayed if not everyone accepts.)

It all sounds great in theory, but I would think it would be difficult for a non-profit to find the time and energy to devote to something like this on a regular basis. People tend to want to walk into and out of a meeting/retreat with answers and a plan of action.

In business like relationships, people’s desire to understand the other guy tends to start and end at the point they do or don’t get what they want. People tend to only want to know things that they think will help them do their jobs and discard/ignore those things that typically won’t help. (The website implies though that knowing these other facts can enhance a business relationship.)

Perhaps we are conditioned into this behavior by TV programs that wrap up problems within the confines of a time period and by technology which allows us to access information and goods round the clock. Opened ended contemplation can seem to be more of an amusing luxury than immediate value.

The website says that the fear that the practice is a waste of time is one of the 3 main impediments to participation. The other two are “They fear that they are not ‘smart’ enough, especially if they did not enjoy literature classes in school. They fear that they will be manipulated emotionally for the purposes of the group.” The implication being, don’t knock it til you sincerely try it.

I would be interested to learn if anyone has tried Civic Reflection in any forum, be it non-profit or other, and what your impressions were. Let me know.

More Built to Fail

It occurs to me that my suggestions in my entry yesterday didn’t really solve the problem of arts organizations feeling forced in to professionalizing their organization. My suggestions really were only applicable for organizations who had just started out and didn’t have their own theatre space.

What happens if you are a member of a theatre group that was started back in the early part of the 20th century as part of the Little Theatre movement? Even if your only ambition is to be a resource for the community and the kids in the neighborhood and provide them with a place they can express themselves artisitical on weekends and after school, you face some problems.

Back when your theatre was formed, the community was more focussed on itself. Businesses were run by people you knew and they could be easily approached about supporting you. Now it is all corporate owned. Chances are you don’t know the community giving officer when you approach a company and probably won’t have much contact with them outside of your project. Chances are also about even that they may not be the community giving officer next year when you go back for an annual appeal.

Banks used to be owned locally and focussed locally as well. Now your bank can easily change names 3 times in five years as they merge and get bought out. Instead of dealing with a local person, you end up sending grant donations in to a corporate office in Delaware or perhaps a regional headquarters.

Instead of talking to someone about giving you a donation and having them stop back to see the results, now you have to fill out all sorts of paper work and are judged heavily on your persuasive writing skills. If you are given a grant, you then have to follow up with more forms typically backed up with survey data to show how you served X number of people or improved the lives of folks in the community.

All these things require you to be organized to such a degree that the move to having a professional staff take care of it rather than shuffling paperwork between committee members homes seems like a logical step.

Only now you find that the people funding you are interested in doing a lot of bragging about how many school children they serve and they want to get as much bang for thier buck so the place that says they can serve 4000 kids for a 10,000 donation is a better investment than a place that does a really great job serving 400.

Then you discover you need to have matching funds. So for the $10,000 you want, you need to raise $10-20,000 from another source, be it donations or earned income. So then there is more effort to expend organizing, tracking and reporting for other grants/donations or ticket income.

It is all a pain in the ass, but you are really dedicated to providing support to the community, so much so that you will start doing things you never initially envisioned in order to make yourself attractive to granting organizations. Some of it is really great and rewarding, but you are getting tired so you bring on more people to help you out.

Now you see how easy it is get into a situation where your organization is overbuilt as the Artful Manager referred to. You get into a position where you are focussing on preserving funding to things you aren’t interested in doing simply so you can divert some resources to the things you are. But you aren’t fulfilling your original purpose well because you are distracted by the effort of keeping all the other balls in the air. (And by the way, by this point you are talking about every arts organization.)

I can really see how expectations in today’s environment can really put a lot of pressure on organizations to professionalize. I can’t see any viable solutions. In an age where governments are dissolving arts councils, I can’t see foundations and businesses tasking more employees to going out and getting to know their communities to the point where donations can be made on a handshake.

I absolutely think there is a need for accountability and recordkeeping so that businesses know where their money is going and how it is being spent. Unless a company or foundation is going to have their employees travel around collecting support materials, pictures, etc from small arts organizations and then fill out the paperwork themselves to take the burden off the arts, I have a tough time imagining an alternative at this time.