Try On Theatre, It May Fit Better Than You Think

American Theatre recently had a great piece about an interesting approach Princeton University is using as an alternative to auditions called “Try On Theatre Days.” They describe the program as “replacing high-intensity auditions with educational workshops as a means to cast performers and stagehands for the school’s seasonal productions.”

What I appreciate about this approach is the broad invitation to the campus community to come and check out the theatre program and experience mini-lessons in various functions. This is a departure from the practice at many non-conservatory theatre programs I have worked with and encountered where the invitation to the campus community starts and ends with the audition notice. The approach that Princeton is described as using seems to do a better job of giving people the confidence they have the ability to contribute to a production both by getting them to participate in various activities and raising awareness of roles beyond performing.

There is also a hope that the process will introduce greater diversity and reduce insular clique culture in the theatre program:

The first day of the three-day process is a community day, at which all Princeton students are invited to meet the theatre department and to experience introductory-level singing, dancing, and acting workshops…The next two days are designated for students to “try on” specific shows in the upcoming season, … not only in the acting sense but also, for example, stage management, in which prospective students get the opportunity to try calling cues. The purpose is to introduce and teach students to different facets of theatre rather than make judgments about what capabilities certain students walk in the door with, and in turn let students decide if theatre is something they want to pursue.

This new process aims to level the playing field for students who didn’t have traditional theatrical training prior to attending Princeton University. The goal is to transform the student theatre culture and attract a more diverse population, as well as to reduce the cliques and the student hierarchies that often result when theatre students consistently casting their friends in productions.

The “Try On Theatre Days” grew out of an initiative where the university administration paid students to conduct teach-ins about the challenges, biases, and other discouraging factors they faced when trying to participate in productions and classes. Students interviewed by American Theatre said the result has been an increased degree of authenticity in productions, a shift in power dynamics, a rethinking of the casting process, and an improved sense capacity to participate in the creative process.

Resisting The Corruption Of The Violin

Recently I have been seeing stories about violin scammers. People performing in shopping centers and other public places with signs asking for money. What is interesting about these stories is that the claim of a scam is based on the fact these people are pretending to play violin to a recording.

There are some warnings about using payment apps to give these people money with the implication that the scammers will exploit that information in someway. But the real focus seems to be that these folks are representing themselves as having a skill they don’t possess.

There are a lot of complex factors to consider here. It is great for artists that there is some recognition of the value of discipline and training and the sense that you are being cheated of something if someone is taking shortcuts to represent themselves as having invested time into developing a skill.

On the other hand, things have seemed to come a long way since the Milli Vanilli lip syncing scandals of the late 80s.  It is pretty much an open secret that many performers lip sync and maybe even feign playing instruments to a backing track. It is less of a secret that a lot of performers use some degree of auto-tuning, vocal distortion, music sampling, etc.

So why is it viewed as problematic, bordering on illegal, that someone hanging out in a shopping mall parking lot is not a skilled musician?  If you enjoy what you hear and are moved to give money, why should it matter if it is live or Memorex?

Could it be that the negative perceptions of symphonic music being generally inaccessible and surrounded by inscrutable traditions and practices also lend the music and instruments an aura of incorruptibility?   In other words, if you employ an instrument of this genre to create music, it reflects an authentic investment of sweat equity, untouched by the compromises and shortcuts of other types of music.

It may be worth a closer examination of the social dynamics to more clearly determine what is at play.  It may be possible to leverage this sentiment to the greater benefit of artists and arts organizations.   I think the past has already illustrated that it would be a mistake to try to place the artists on a pedestal.  In general, it appears people already place them there on their own. If you read the stories, people are open to giving to the people they find in parking lots and are dismayed when they find out the music is recorded.

Over the years I have written about the whole experiment of having Joshua Bell perform in the D.C. metro, something that still annoys me to this day.  Environment and context are significant factors when it comes to a willingness to participate in an experience. Even though a parking lot or flash mob performance seems informal, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make it successful for the audience.   I have written many posts about this, but perhaps the one that sums it up best covered a piece by Anne Midgette before she retired from the Washington Post.

Referencing Joshua Bell in the DC Metro, she wrote:

In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport..

and then later:

Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences…

Toward A More Artistic European Union

As promised, I am following up on Monday’s post about about the first European Union (EU) wide survey of performing arts.

I wanted to note some of the recommendations made in the study. One of the most significant was to facilitate employment opportunities across the entire EU. The study noted that every country focused on their national performing arts entities.  Additionally, Covid restrictions have delayed the training and opportunities for younger artists to gain practical experience.

Among their proposals are to create more opportunities for artists to work across borders:

To address these concerns, the study calls for theatres around Europe to create so-called ‘third spaces’ at venues to support young artists.

Such a space would connect with theatre schools and academies to programme the work and support young artists to enter the professional theatre scene after graduating.

Similarly, the study suggests creating a ‘European Theatre Showcase’, potentially as an element added on to the European Theatre Forum, to offer a long-term perspective and provide the next generation of young artists from Europe a “much-needed industry networking space.”

Something that caught my eye were multiple statements that seemed to indicate a stark separation of interaction and dialogue between schools and training programs and performing arts venues. It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be the case given that universities can often be among the most prominent producers and presenters of performing arts in the U.S. (Association of Performing Arts Professionals which is essentially the national conference for presenters started out as Association of College, University and Community Arts Administrators (ACUCAA)) Among the proposals in this area were in regard to moving toward common standards of training and accreditation so that students were more easily employed in other countries.

Other proposals to facilitate cross-border employment included amending tax laws which often double-taxed artists; addressing sexual harassment, work environment, gender and racial disparities; mainstreaming the employment and depiction of sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability.

Another section discussed funding sustainable construction/renovation and practices with an eye to cutting energy consumption and impact on the environment.

It was interesting to read about all the factors that need to be navigated and sorted out among EU countries. Differences regarding discrimination, harassment and social standing of arts wasn’t particularly surprising. Nor was the idea that most countries focused on supporting their national arts entities.

There were many more administrative and legal hurdles noted than I imagined. If you have ever visited a European country and watched people breezing through the exit for citizens of Schengen Area countries while you queue up to be examined at customs, it is easy to think all these issues had been long settled.

More Europe Performing Arts Orgs During Covid

Last week German arts administrator Rainer Glaap made a Facebook post linking to the first ever study of theatres across the European Union (EU).  Additionally, some of the survey participants were non-EU members of the Creative Europe program.  Readers may recall I had made a number of posts looking at how various governments across Europe were providing financial support to artists during the height of the Covid pandemic.  So I was interested in seeing what this report had to say.

One of the biggest difficulties faced in putting the study together was all the differences that exist between European countries in terms of number of theatre, definitions of performing arts activities, funding policies, training practices, etc. There were numerous times the report noted the difficulty in making and apples to apples comparison.

However, there were a number of interesting things I pulled from the report. For instance, apparently France and Germany are the primary models for presenting/touring versus producing.

The so-called ‘French oriented system’ is based on productions, touring and selling plays to other venues making international co-production easier to fit in a programme. In a ‘German oriented system’ whereby theatres operate as production houses with in-house established ensembles, international co-production is less natural since the programme is set for the season.

Since the degree to which European governments subsidize the arts is a frequent topic of conversation in the U.S., having a EU-wide report on this number is obviously of some interest (recall this is an average from 39 participating countries):

“ticket sales in public funded theatres usually amounts to about 25% of the theatre budget. Commercially-oriented private theatres and independent companies however rely mostly on revenues generated from the box office and other commercial activities. Among the surveyed private theatre venues and companies, revenue from sales (tickets, admissions) constituted around 40% of their budgets before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

During Covid, many of the measures taken in European countries were similar to those in the U.S. Many shifted to streamed live or archived performances, with results ranging from innovative to downright disappointing. Others found ways to perform in outdoor or non-traditional spaces. Companies in a number of countries started working with hospitals, retirement homes, schools and universities to offer performances. Some organizations experimented with the drive-in theatre experience where people remained in their cars. There was an account of a festival in France which replaced the cancelled Avignon Festival which provided press exposure to smaller arts organizations which normally wouldn’t get it and apparently enabled the organizer, Theatre 14 to reach audiences not used to attending theatre. I am not sure how it was organized to encourage that. I assumed it might be outdoors in public spaces, but it appears the performances were held in physical performance spaces.

There were examples of efforts to provide better support for artists, both in terms of government policy:

Good practices are emerging, such as negotiating a minimum wage for artistic work in the theatre, also for people working on other terms than an employment contract e.g. in Austria or Finland. In some countries, such as Poland, new legal acts and wide-ranging regulations are created to support this professional group. In Belgium, the situation of artists resulting from the pandemic pushed the creation of a new type of ‘fair trade’ contract, in order to improve the contractual relations between artists and cultural operators. As a result of such a contract, a play can either be postponed or cancelled, but in the latter case part of the fees must be paid to the artists.

[…]

….The project was funded via the European Commission’s DG Employment and Social Affairs budget line for Information and Training Measures for Workers’ Organisations. It helped the unions to train and put in place a strategy in relation to organising, with a focus on freelance, self-employed and otherwise atypical workers in the Media Arts and Entertainment sectors.”83

As well as acts of solidarity:

Nau Ivanow, a cultural residence space in Spain that has a venue, decided that all income from ticket sales during the COVID-19 pandemic will be given to the performing companies and artists.
Also, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic they decided to offer their two rehearsal spaces for free for the interested artists/companies.

[..]

Some of the [Romanian] public cultural institutions (National Dance Centre, National Heritage Institute, Clujean Cultural Centre, National Museum Complex ASTRA Sibiu, Studio M Theatre in Sfantu Gheorghe) announced that they did not attend this funding session in order to show their solidarity with the independent cultural operators, whose resources have been drastically diminished, and who were less eligible for support than state funded institutions.

The report also made some recommendations for the future which I will probably cover in my post tomorrow.