The Past May Hold Answers, But They Are Imperfect

I came across an interesting contrast in perspective about solutions for a post-Covid world last week. In American Theatre, Jim Warren, the founding artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center proposed a model for theatre to ensure long-term, consistent employment for artists by returning to the rotating repertory model and having artists fulfill administrative roles.

For those that are not familiar with the rotating repertory model, it is a practice where the same core group of performers appear in every production in a season instead of contracting a separate slate of performers for each production.   So if you have a core group of 18 performers, 10 of them may be in the production currently appearing on stage while 8 of them are rehearsing the next production and there may be an overlap of 4 – 5 working on both productions, though with less demands on their time and energy in one of those productions.

Warren also suggests artists take on administrative roles:

Perhaps we need to return to structures similar to what we had at the birth of many theatre companies, when actors split the duties of marketing, fundraising, education, bookkeeping, making websites, and every other job that needed doing. Perhaps we could hire actors full-time to create the shows, use their individual superpowers in other areas, and then hire part-timers to handle the overflow of admin work when we need more help.

The end goal is to provide everyone with a 40 hour work week, health coverage, paid vacation and sick time.

These are not insignificant goals. As Drew McManus has been writing about over at Adaptistration, the current trend in the orchestra world is to dissolve contracts with musicians and try to run the organization solely using fee for service arrangements where musicians are only paid when they perform. (While maintaining their skills and expensive instruments at a high standard while waiting to be called.)

However, there were some people who took umbrage with Warren’s proposal, particularly with the idea that current administrators must go and that most actors are equally adept at administration as performance.

Others challenged the assumption that pre-Covid many arts entities had the resources to provide their administrators with a 40 hour work week, health coverage, paid vacation and sick time.

Warren admits that he had been striving to create these working conditions for years prior to Covid and many of his solutions at the time were imperfect so there was certainly an implication that there was still a lot of work to be done on these ideas.

I don’t think anyone is necessarily debating that the goals he sets are not worthy, but given that no one was satisfied with the status quo in the decades prior to Covid, a solution is going to require casting gazes further and broader than before. I was initially tempted to say the solution would require multiples of effort beyond what had been invested before, but I think it is really more a matter of the will to blaze new paths into the unknown than mustering additional strength to lift or surmount obstacles.

Is Auto-Tune Coming To Dance?

I recently saw this story about Adobe creating a new product using AI to smooth out dance movement in videos.

I can definitely see the value in something like this in the Covid era. If you have ever tried to synch up videos of people singing the same song in different rooms recorded on devices of varying quality, you know what a challenge that can be. There can be a similar benefit for dance groups that have their members recording videos in disparate locations.

But the same technology can be used to make people look like better dancers than they actually are. The Adobe researcher in the video accompany the article, I assume he is Jimei Yang, says he started working on the AI because his daughter felt his dancing wasn’t up to the standard of the guy in another video she was watching. So there is no pretense about the technology being helpful in stitching videos together or being used to analyze your movements so you can improve your skill as a dancer. It is all about making you look like a better dancer than you are.

If you do any reading about the controversies over using auto-tune to make people sound pitch perfect, you’ll find that some feel tools like these diminish the value of hard work to cultivate your skill. Others will say that it provides new options for creativity that didn’t exist before. Then there are others that won’t say anything because they depend on sounding pitch perfect for their livelihood.

One thing that will likely keep tools like the one Adobe is developing from being used as widely as auto tune as a substitute for skill is live performance. When someone is presenting a live concert, it is easy enough to lip synch to a recorded track or have vocals processed before being transmitted without being detected. Short of implants that allow an AI to control your movement, it is tough to enhance dance skills beyond your actual ability during a live performance.

Mounting A Performing Arts Conference When No One Wants To Travel

Two regional arts conferences, Western Arts Alliance and Arts Midwest partnered on offering a single online conference to replace their respective in-person events.

I will say right from the outset, I really need an in-person conference which takes me away from my job. The online conference doesn’t offer enough content to justify my staying at home all week, but trying to participate virtually with the demands and distractions of my job is not working.

I am not saying I would have traveled to Omaha this year. I am just recognizing the benefits of intentionally carving time out to devote to your professional development.

Also, the technology they are using to deliver the conference is very frustrating to use. I suspect it looked really well designed when the conference organizers were reviewing it because it brings a lot of valuable features together in one place. I thought they made a good choice when I first poked around it prior to the conference start.

However, in practice when you have over 1000 people using it to view content and interact to conduct business, the shortcomings become clearer. There were some sessions where people have openly commented they are doing research on other platforms for conferences they organize.

This being said, the virtual conference format allows me to have my staff participate, something I wouldn’t have been able to afford with an in-person conference. Being able to divide and conquer when it comes to attending and offering observations on different conferences sessions and performance showcases is pretty valuable.

As I write this, the second day of the conference is drawing to a close. There are still two more days, but one observation my staff and I have made already is that there is a stark gulf between people who have acknowledged the future will not be the same as the past and those that view their current situation as akin to a delayed flight home–incredibly inconveniencing, but you’ll eventually get back to familiar surroundings.

In one session I attended yesterday, I wondered what people had been doing for the last seven months because people were asking questions that seemed to indicate they hadn’t really considered their options for re-opening. Sessions I attended today were much better and assuring. People were offering examples of creative approaches they were using, plans they had for the future and the responses they were seeing from the community.

My marketing director had been in a session on Failure yesterday where the host basically summed up the session by noting if organizations weren’t exploring different options now, in two-three years when new models of participation begin to solidify and gain significant traction, those organizations will be two years behind the curve. Currently, because no one knows what will happen, there is a greater tolerance for experimentation and associated mistakes. It is difficult to criticize a decision as bad if no one can say what the better decision would have been–implementing that better option next time has an almost equal chance of failing in the current operating environment.

What I think will be problematic for the performing artists showcasing at the conference is that they are packaging themselves to suit last year’s paradigm. While their showcases are pre-recorded in venues that show off their talent much, much better than an in-person experience in a conference hotel ballroom, they also don’t have the opportunity to discuss what they have to offer in light of what they may have gleaned from sessions earlier in the day.

To be clear, I definitely don’t think depending on being able to deliver a quality, problem free livestream performance would have been a better option. I am just saying had the performance been delivered live, whether in-person or live stream, artists and agents could have taken what they were hearing venues were saying about their plans and concerns over the course of the day and revised their script to present themselves as capable of providing a solution to those problems.

I was considering writing this post next week after the conference was over so I could provide a more complete assessment of the experience, but I know a few performing arts presenters who may be participating in the conference read my blog so I wanted to get them thinking about these factors which may be shaping how they are experiencing different parts of the conference.

Be Sure Your Data Doesn’t Just Mean You Are Good At Posting Memes

If you have been reading my writing for the last few years, you know that in addition to employing the preceding phrase fairly often, I argue that not everything that can be measured about an arts organization’s activity is a valid measure of the value of the organization and the work it does.

What should also be acknowledged as a corollary to that is that not all data is created equal or equally valuable. Since there is a growing push for arts organizations to do a better job of embracing data-driven decision making .

Over at Arts Hacker, I recently summarized a post by Colleen Dilenschneider distinguishing between key performance indicators (KPIs), diagnostic metrics and vanity metrics.

Briefly, KPIs measure progress toward your mission/goals, diagnostic metrics inform KPIs and vanity metrics sound impressive, but aren’t an indication of any sort of progress. (i.e. Your social media engagement increased 1000% in a week because you posted a kitten meme.)

The problem, Dillenschneider says, is that valuing vanity metrics can result in allocating resources away from mission focused activities and evaluation. For example, the executive director may suddenly gain national prominence and invitations to speak at conferences, etc. which may raise the profile of the organization and make many stakeholders extremely proud of their association.

But if this isn’t contributing to a recognition of problems with the quality of the work being done and the poor community interactions that are occurring, then there is no value to having a year over year increase in the number of speaking invitations.

If you are trying to use data to inform your decisions, take a look at the post. The line between KPIs and diagnostic metrics can be confusing and it can be easy to categorize the latter as part of the former without a reminder of the dividing line.


Yes, Data Driven Decision Making. But What Data Is Important?

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