Farming The Arts

A couple weeks ago on the Americans for the Arts blog, Joshua Russell suggested a farm system for arts leadership similar to what professional sports teams use. I got to thinking about that concept in the context of arts organizations in general.

My first thought was that there is already a farm team feeder set up for so many segments of the performing arts, going something like: high school —>college/conservatory —> professional. Depending on the discipline, then you might get into different strata for theatre companies, symphonies, dance companies where performing with one is more prestigious than another.

Farm League Actors?
Then I started thinking about whether some sort of system like this might be possible in theatre since that is the area whose training and performance system I am most familiar. There are, in fact, a number of college/conservatory theatre training programs with very close associations to LORT theatres that provide actors, stage managers and technicians with practical experience (and the theatres with less expensive labor.) But there is a lot of room for expansion. Given a huge infusion of money and a shift in funding structures, could Broadway and the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) create a feeder system? Done right, it could shift the focus away from NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago as the ultimate career goal and strengthen theatre regionally. Of course, it would take about 25-30 years for attitudes to shift sufficiently away from the holy trinity as a career destination.

Toledo Tyrones, Guthrie Triple A Team
There is already a tacit acknowledgment of stature, but I imagine some people, as a matter of ego, and there is plenty of that in the arts, might not like to have their local theatre overtly regarded as substandard to the organizations they feed into. On the other hand, a lot of people find minor league baseball games and the parks that house them to be a lot more fun and family friendly than the majors. Presumably, there would be some sort of investment of funds and resources from up the chain to sustain the system of cultivation. That might improve quality on many fronts for the single A to triple A level theatres.

Setting Down Roots

I think it would also go a long way to solve some of the concerns Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin have about the careers theatre training programs are preparing students for if there were viable career opportunities that allowed people to maintain a long term regional residency. It might not stem the tide of too many people pursuing too few opportunities, but it might keep creative people closer to home where they could apply that skill in ways that would bolster the local economy.

The Wise Farmer Plans Long Term
Ultimately, short of an immense shift in thousands of elements, I don’t anticipate this happening any time soon. At least not on a national scale. I think a single regional theatre could make a commitment to sourcing locally. They could go to a couple of training programs and commit to employing their students with an eye to keeping them around for a long time. Every college program I have been associated with has a pretty good idea what high schools feed them. The colleges and the theatre could go to them and say they look forward to seeing their students on their stages and they hope the schools continue to maintain strong arts programs. The theatre could also go around to other theatres throughout the region looking for up and coming talent.

Then the theatre could employ their board connections directly and indirectly to create a program where artists could secure good rents and mortgages and get other incentives to stay locally. In turn some of those who are attracted/retained to the area can target the feeder schools as teachers and visiting artists to help cultivate that resource–and eventually expand to other schools.

By the way, this is partially how the whole regional theatre system was supposed to work. Instead, they turned to NYC to do most of their casting. This hypothetical theatre would be looking to lure people back or give them an incentive to never go. To some degree, it would actually be healthy for the theatre to have people go away to work with other actors and organizations and then return. While Broadway may always be the gold standard in many respects, it might be best to have people going away to work in places that served regional communities because those are the audiences the theatre wants its people to learn to serve.

Shifting The Conversation
But in terms of a national movement, I think there is a better chance of Walters and Loughlin succeeding in changing the way students are trained and the way their expectations are shaped than having most theatres change how they source their talent.

Sports and Theatre
In that context, my mind turned to a comparison of the athletics and farm system for professional sports. The systems aren’t completely analogous, but there are enough similarities to speculate a little. The problem area that Walters and Loughlin identify is the college/conservatory stage where people choose to major in theatre hoping to make a career of it.

For college sports, a lot of athletes are offered scholarships to play for the school. There is a fair amount of controversy about this because there is a lot of money invested in non-academic pursuits at educational institutions. Victories bring prestige and increased donations from alumni. There is also criticism made of the fact that these students generate a lot of money for the school, but often don’t get a good education out of the deal because of low expectations of them or even lack of time to excel in both sports and academics.

Practical Professional Expectations
But the thing is, despite all the investment into the athletic programs and the players, you pretty much know that not everyone is going to get to play professionally. There are far fewer professional teams than there are college programs that can feed them. There are 32 NFL teams and about 120 college football teams in Division I alone. There are only a select few who can successfully operate at the level required by professional sports.

You occasionally hear about athletes getting short shrift on their education or having irrational expectations of being recruited to play pro right out of high school. But how many people will complain if all of Alabama’s defensive tackles didn’t get drafted to the NFL even though the school finished first in the football standings last year?

Status Enumerated
Statistically, every defensive tackle that graduates each year may have a better chance of going pro than every acting student that graduates, but for all practical purposes, the chances are the same. So what is the difference? Why aren’t more athletes taking temporary jobs, biding their time until their opportunity comes?

Well, for one thing, I think its partially that numbers help define your place in sports. You know how fast you can run, how many times you have completed an action successfully and how many times you didn’t. Personality and passion also contribute to whether someone wants you for their team, but the statistics provide a baseline comparison between you and everyone else and you know what teams value. You may think you weren’t used to your greatest potential, but you probably have few illusions about an athletics career going forward.

What Are Ian McKellen’s Stats?
In the arts, things are much more subjective. Assessment is as much about how you have improved and demonstrated you have started to grasp concepts as it is about your overall talent. Just like there are only a few people who have the ability to hit a 90 mph fastball and solve complicated physics problems, there are only a very few with magnificent acting talent. Except that personality and good looks can be just as important at the end of the day as skill. Trying harder won’t get most of us any closer to hitting that fast ball, but with such subjectivity muddying the evaluative waters, it is easy to believe success is just a matter of patience and trying hard.

In an earlier time, I think those who instructed would have had an easier time trying to disabuse their students of this notion. Now that we can watch people try out for American Idol at the mall and make it to the final rounds based heavily on charisma inspired voting, I think it is harder to convince people that the odds are greatly against them period, much less based on lack of ability.

I Didn’t Go To Class Because I Was Practicing Being A Lizard*
One of the great similarities between theatre students and athletes in Division I colleges is that grades often suffer as a result of their pursuits. (Though there is far more pressure on instructors to grade athletes more leniently.) Because of their great emotional investment in theatre, those students often neglect to complete assignments or even attend classes in favor of theatre related activities.

A number of theatre departments threaten dire consequences for students who let this happen by commission or omission. But as I have mentioned before, I think Tom Loughlin’s idea that students need to be trained to employ their abilities more widely becomes more apt. If students are going to cut class and neglect studies to do arts related stuff, you might as well have them channeling their passion toward doing something that will develop skills with wide applications.

*I didn’t skip class, but I did spend a lot of time practicing being a lizard for my scene work in Edward Albee’s Seascape

Stuff You Can Use: Free Classes!

Okay, very short entry today so that no one thinks tl;dnr from just a glance.

Fractured Atlas, which is doing a pretty great job gluing the artistic world together, is offering FREE online classes which you can start, pause and continue at your leisure.

From their blog announcement making the courses free (my emphasis so nothing is overlooked.)

Currently, there are six courses (on marketing, fundraising, professional identity, social media marketing, working with agents, and getting your sh*t together) and two video workshops (on independent contractors vs. employees, and wellness programs for dancers). We will be launching four to six more courses during April and May (on audio description for performances, presentation venues, board development, fundraising letters, financial planning, and producing) and more video workshops are in the works.

You have to sign up to be a member, but the Community Membership is free and that is all you need to access the classes. You may, however, be interested in the insurance and other benefits they offer with a paid membership so it can be beneficial to look around a little.

I just signed up myself after years of reading their blog. While I am pretty sure I have my sh*t together, you just can’t pass up the opportunity to check that out. (And I strongly suspect there may be people I am going to encourage to take the class.)

Slaves Of The System And Our Expectations

Well The Guardian beat me to it. I was going to do an entry rounding up the multitude of discussions about arts internships, but the Guardian got there first with many of the links I bookmarked for my entry as well as some I hadn’t. Still, it is probably a sign of a discussion that needs to be had when so many people start to participate. So I take some consolation in the fact the internet is doing its job and bringing us all together.

Read as many of the blog links included in the story as you can to get the fullest picture. One thing I think got lost in the discussion. While it is illegal for for-profit organizations to have unpaid internships, according to the NY Times article cited, they aren’t illegal for non-profits because they are allowed to have volunteer work staff.

Now, whether unpaid internships should be illegal is another question. Scott Walters makes a strong case about how internships and the systems that value them, favor the affluent who have the connections and family support to secure good prestigious internships. I was ready to say it wasn’t so except that he essentially describes my college career arc. I worked to pay my way through high school, college and grad school and slaved away for free in the theatre during those times I wasn’t working or studying. I would say the only benefit I had over the person in Scott’s story is that I had a family that valued education and so I knew enough about basic networking to position myself for a good internship—a paid one at that.

Compare that to the daughter of a colleague who goes to an Ivy League University and recently decided she might want to get into arts administration and got an internship at Lincoln Center. Granted, her parents told her to take advantage of every opportunity offered, do whatever she was asked and not to even think about going to parties instead so she could suck the marrow out of the experience. I really don’t know if I could have gotten that internship as easily even having grown up in NY and having been involved in the theatre for a fair bit of time, but not going to an Ivy.

I am not going to rail as vehemently against the system as Walters does. Saying the affluent gain more advantages than the poor seems as self-evident as saying the public transport system of big cities provide more advantages to their residents than those enjoyed by suburban residents. That isn’t to say that people shouldn’t work to change the situation if they see an opportunity to do so. I have a lot of respect for the effort Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin are putting in to this goal. They started a blog separate from their personal ones, Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation in which they discuss the current situation and how it might be fixed.

I thought it was very timely on the day we opened a show in my theatre about celebrity, Tom Loughlin had an entry on the seductive quality of fame. While there is some misrepresentation about arts careers by training programs, there is a degree of self-delusion that hasn’t existed in the past. (my emphasis)

“The young person who wrote this email is a very nice and very engaging student. But he is not thinking rationally. He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).

I think theatre educators do not take into account the power of this drive in young people.

[….big snip….]

As educators, we should begin to recognize the part that fame plays in the lives of our students. We should understand that they are growing up in a culture where fame is glorified, and that their motivations for studying theatre are not necessarily the same ones that those of us of a certain age had as theatre students. Do we have anything at all to counter this rush to fame? Can we offer them any options at all for careers more rooted in personal self-worth as determined by their own values? Can we educate them for careers in the arts where they can be rooted in communities of people driven by motives other than profit and notoriety? Sure we can, but we have to have the courage to be the kinds of educators no longer willing to send new victims to be sacrificed to the altar of our adoration. We have to find values other than fame in theatre for them, and sell those values more strongly and convincingly.”

I know that I keep talking about the Creative Economy which is supposed to be the next phase of mass employment. There aren’t many overt signs of this coming to pass in these dismal financial times, unless you count the creativity needed to create all those awful financial instruments that brought this all about. One of the things Tom talks about in this entry is the idea that training programs are responding to fill a perceived need for a very narrow segment of the arts. Perhaps if training programs began to teach students about the alternative ways to employ the skills they are using, it could contribute to the development of the creative economy.

At this point there doesn’t seem much risk to pursuing this course. Is it that much worse to train students for jobs that may not exist in the future or train them for jobs that will employ less than one percent of one percent of them? Instead of chasing the areas “they” say opportunities will be, training programs can drive the creation of those opportunities.

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.