Just Leave Those Barriers Intact, Eh?

Well, I am actually happy to confess that upon review, there aren’t as many artists being promoted by trite phrases as I implied at the end of my post yesterday. I get 40-50 emails a week from agents and artists during the off-season and close to that a day during the conference season. Even if only 1% contain trite phrases, I am seeing them with enough frequency that it feels like an epidemic.

The general area of offense I had in mind when I mentioned it yesterday is of the “ground breaking, barrier shattering, break through” ilk. I found quite a few of this type in my review. It appeared in emails, two cold call resumes I received in the last month and at least one radio advertisement I have heard lately. The closest to the truth any of these people seemed to get was the label experimental. I see the claim made a lot in reference to dance, but theatre and music make their share.

If you do modern dance with ballet, hiphop or jazz influences, you really aren’t pushing the envelop. Employing Hopi Indian influences gets intriguing. Getting the women of al Qaida to do modern dance is breaking all sorts of barriers. As is a ballet company doing something other than Nutcracker for their Christmas show.

Performance art pieces doing strange things in strange costumes that may or may not be a reference to the alienation of the individual by some force may be entertaining and thought provoking, but the ground was broken and has been pounded back down by many who have come before.

Taking a classic rock tune that appears fairly often on soft and light rock stations, turning it into an easy listening tune and calling it a break through crossover hit is just plain evil.

I have harped on the annoying overuse of “what it means to human” before. I am happy to see that phrase has moved to the fringes. I did see it used two weeks ago, but there had been a very welcome gap in our encounters. (I do pray it isn’t experiencing a revival.) I am hoping that the barrier breakers either find some other ways to talk about themselves or become involved with some legitimately innovative activities.

Use of trite marketing language generally doesn’t have any relation to the value of the performance or audience enjoyment. It does form a first impression so it definitely impacts the likelihood of being considered as a performer.

I’ll be the first to admit that writing effective copy is tough and if I am not, I will be among the first to shout Amen! Staying away from the trite stuff makes it harder but you ain’t gonna get any better allowing yourself to default to those word choices.

Artist, Promote Thy Self!

Ah summer! When a young theatre manager’s thoughts turn to…collecting promotional information for the upcoming season.

I have been trying to collect information to promote our upcoming season on the web, season brochure, press releases, etc, etc. Much of my motivation is to have most of this into my graphic designer and web person’s hands before I go on vacation so I can come back and review what they have done.

It really astounds me that so many artists are ill prepared to promote their works. I can understand not having images upon my request, especially for works in progress or when an ensemble has had some significant change over. It can be tough getting everyone together and turn around from a photoshoot in a short time.

But there are a couple groups that seem unable to verbalize what is attractive about their work. All I need is 4-5 short sentences at this juncture folks! How hard is it to formulate something to get me excited!

One group I wrote up a blurb of the general sense I would be going for and asked them to fill in some blanks. My blanks even had suggested answers along the lines of – Mitch is a well regarded musician for his virtuosity in (bluegrass, classical, rock). All that they needed to do is clarify what was unclear.

That was over a week ago. I still haven’t heard back from them.

Another group is reviving a masterwork. For two weeks I have asked them for some simple clarification about the program being revised. I saw the principal performer two weeks ago at a theatre and he assured me I would get something (along with the contract) soon. I did receive a blurb this week about the last time he worked together with a guest artist appearing in the revival–but nothing about the revival itself. I finally emailed the organization which secured the grant for the revival asking them for some general information. Their deadline for materials was a few weeks ago so presumably they have something more than I do.

Something I noticed. With one exception, the groups I do have materials for all have agents. I have started to wonder, if not for the agents sending out a standard packet of information, would most of these other groups been in a position to communicate about themselves so clearly? The one exception is a young group without an agent which sent me two fantastic pages dense with great information.

If it comes to pass that agents either sever or reduce their involvement with their less than marquee performers and artists are left to fend for themselves in some manner, it might be a bad situation for many groups.

I don’t have any illusions about my role in things becoming redundant if artists really focused on managing their own business. Yeah managing the business end saps your energy for making art.

Just like anyone associated with an arts organization should be able to passionately extemporize on the value of what they do, every artist should be able to dash off an email or a make a phone call to give a short spiel on why they are worth seeing.

Notice I say extemporize. It is a maneuver that not everyone can do but with enough practice, people can sound unpracticed doing it.

If I have the time to ponder over lunch tomorrow, perhaps my next entry will be on some of the trite phrases being bandied about in promotional messages these days. In this, neither agents nor artists hold the high ground.

Lord knows, some of them do a better job than the publicists for arts organizations. Just take a look at Greg Sandow’s rants from 2005 (read from May 25 through June 15)

What Value The Arts In Prison?

I was surprised to see my home town newspaper mentioned on the Americans for the Arts blog recently. Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Manager, John Abodeely, was responding to a story about how inmates from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility were being blocked from performing at Eastern Correctional Facility by the corrections guard union. (Eastern Correctional Facility apparently inspires a lot of art. I once wrote a short story based *cough* on my time spent there.)

Abodeely responds to the union’s central argument that there is no value in the experience. “How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?” One answer is Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes–six Tony nominations, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award. Another is Charles Dutton. These are just off the top of my head. I am sure there are other examples.

Abodeely discusses the economic value of the arts in terms of jobs, revenue and taxes generated. I think Abodeely misses the mark on two counts. First, regardless of the economic impact statistics, it is difficult for people with arts backgrounds to gain employment in their field, whether it be on Broadway or not. An ex-con probably has just as good a chance of being employed as anyone. (So on second thought, I guess Abodeely’s numbers are valid when applied to the convicts.)

But the second point is the real issue. The subtext of the question the corrections officer posed was all about low regard for the convicts’ personal value and had little to do with economics at all. Perhaps it is clearer to me because I have been in NY prisons, but the guards’ power to deny positive experiences for inmates is a big factor here. Given the union spokesman’s assertion that “prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside,” a more compelling argument would be based on evidence of how engaging in any sort of disciplined program is beneficial to future employment and behavior in the present. There is also public speaking skills, writing skills (since the inmates wrote the play) and development of empathy that can be gained. (Construction and other organizational skills if they are building sets and costumes.)

Abodeely wouldn’t likely have the research or numbers on hand to cite, but there may be some evidence that it reduces recidivism, especially given that is the sponsoring organization, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, goal. The San Quentin Drama Workshop has been active since 1958 so even if there is no clear evidence arts in prison does not reduce recidivism, there must be some value to sustaining the program for 51 years. There is also group, Theatre in Prisons which runs similar programs internationally.

What really makes me believe that the union’s objections on the grounds theatre involvement doesn’t cultivate valuable skills is the fact that Rehabilitation Through the Arts not only does shows at the maximum security NY State run prison, Sing-Sing, but has been based out of there since 1996 and apparently has proven valuable enough to satisfy the corrections officers who I am pretty sure belong to the same union. Pinero wrote Short Eyes while incarcerated in Sing-Sing in 1972 and there was apparently a drama program of some sort there at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not really a big advocate for convict rights. I didn’t particularly enjoy being dragged on visits as part of my mother’s effort to redeem these guys. (Though I does allow me to truthfully say I was in and out of prison for 9 years.) Like most of us, I am not about to allow someone to dismiss the value of participation in the arts out of hand without some rebuttal.

I suppose no discussion of performing arts in prison can be complete without citing the 1500 Filipino prisoners in Cebu doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Arts and Science Make The Whole Person

I love it when themes come together for me. Apropos to yesterday’s entry about the place of arts in the classroom, I saw that the TED site released a talk by Mae Jemison where she discusses how being analytical and creative are not mutually exclusive. In college, her studies left her about equally likely to become a doctor as a dancer. She says her mother essentially made the decision for her. While she ended up going into space, she brought an Alvin Ailey poster along for the ride on the space shuttle.

One of her observations is when she turns the common assumptions that one is either creative or analytic around. She notes that people will often joke about not being able to grasp math and science or lack creative and artistic abilities. She suggests that given the choice of jobs where you either had to be uncreative or illogical, people would seek out jobs that allowed them to do both. Granted, for many jobs these are de facto status of employees and people willingly place themselves in that situation but they still have the freedom to encounter complementary experiences.

I think her point is that people sell themselves short in relation to their analytic and creative abilities in a way that becomes self-reinforcing and gradually colors our self perception.

If arts people are truly invested in promoting arts and creativity as necessary to become a whole person, I believe that cause is best served by also promoting the idea that analytic capabilities are important and contribute toward the whole person goal as well.

Analysis and creativity can’t be divorced from one another. I think I have mentioned before that the lectures that occur in our tech theatre classes sound a lot like my high school physics class. The backstage of a theatre is one big practical physics lab. And without an analytic mind, I would have never figured out why our ticket office reports weren’t quite resolving themselves for a show last month.

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