That Ineffable Value

A post on ye olde Twitter feed led me to a piece on The Globe & Mail site structured as a conversation between J. Kelly Nestruck (theatre critic) and Kate Taylor (visual art critic). In it, they reveal some of the benefits and detriments of watching a livestream performance.

Reading it, I felt like there were some unrealized gems that may become regular features once they are fully developed as well as some points of friction that people will either get used to, fully resist, or accommodate in a way that leads to the development of a new practice.

Early on Nestruck observes that the Stratford Festival’s supposed archival materials look highly polished and he expresses “one of my concerns as a theatre critic is that I fear many of the Shakespeare productions at Stratford are now being created with filming in mind.”

A few sentences later, he says lauds the viewing party he attended as a great experience that probably echoes the environment of Shakespeare at The Globe Theatre:

My best experiences came tuning in to “live viewing parties” to restore the feeling of watching along with others. These are online appointment viewings where you can chat with other viewers in the comments.

The one for Stratford’s Macbeth, for instance, was fun because I could read what folks watching in Winnipeg, Montreal and Cleveland had to say in real time. A recent immigrant from Syria living in Toronto even chimed in to say it was the first time he’d seen the play.

Many actors who had been in the show watched as well, and shared backstage anecdotes. A chatting audience and meta-theatrical asides may sound ghastly to some Shakespeare purists, but I actually thought this was probably more like what the boisterous original outdoor audience was like in Shakespeare’s time.

Taylor says she can see the attraction of having that chatting environment as a frame for viewing the production, though she likens it to the distraction of texting while driving, but she doesn’t think it is a good substitute for live attendance.

Nestruck mentions sometimes the live communal experience is artificially manipulated. He describes how one of the last shows he saw before the Covid shutdown in March actually used canned cheering to get the audience going–though the sound design intentionally tapped into the live audience reactions as well.

“I later learned this chanting and cheering was actually part of the show’s sneaky sound design – though the recorded disembodied shouts then did lead to real cheering. (The sound designer Gareth Owen told me he sometimes also places microphones around a theatre so that an audience’s audible responses can be amplified at certain moments.)

All of which is to say that technology can help foster a feeling of belonging, at the theatre as much as at home.

As this conversation continued, Taylor admits that based on the examples Nestruck has cited, it is becoming difficult for her to definitively say a live experience is the best experience.

So, you’re really challenging me to explain why live performances, with the audience’s and the actors’ minds and bodies occupying the same space and time, are special and important.

It’s odd, but the pandemic has made me recognize the weight of theatrical rituals that I used to dismiss: booking the date, dressing up, applauding all performances. One artist told me that your ticket is a contract with the performer, both literally and figuratively. I will show up; you will show up. There will be a transaction. Somehow, I don’t think that happens when you watch something on a screen. I don’t feel I have entered into a transaction with Brad Pitt or even Greta Gerwig.

In the end, both say there is an ineffable value in the live performance/museum experience that can’t be replaced.

Not So Strange, But Does Require Effort

Non-Profit Quarterly made a post in May that just came across my social media feed today about a weekly Zoom call 200+ arts organizations in NYC are having in order to share information during Covid-19. Ruth McCambridge links to the New York Times piece that reports on this effort.

I have to admit I initially bristled at McCambridge characterizing the NYT article reporting on a story that is “pretty strange” because:

It appears the pandemic has created a sudden realization among the city’s arts organizations that they need one another for advice, counsel, and support even while they take one coronavirus-related hit after another. That has led to a daily Zoom call with around 200 leaders in attendance, coming from groups large and small and spanning organizational types.


Pogrebin finds it “notable how much they are actually acting these days like the ‘arts community’ to which they often aspire.” We call it something of a small miracle, which we think we may be seeing a lot more of as advocacy and mutual aid look increasingly central to not just our survival, but our evolution in a new landscape.

I have been regularly participating in on a number of those calls myself so I will admit that there is more coordination and information sharing across disciplines than before. It is definitely beneficial to everyone involved.

However, over the course of the last 15+ years, I have been part of organizations comprised of arts and culture entities whom regularly shared information and even engaged in cooperative grant writing. I am sure many readers have similar relationships. You know, the ones where you receive important information, but also multiple people feel their one word reply “Thanks” should go to the entire group rather than to an individual.

While I do agree with the proposition that it would be a shame these cross-disciplinary conversations faded away when the crisis passes because we are seeing greater cooperation and community than in the past, I also feel like the idea this coordination is novel news doesn’t given non-profit arts & cultural organizations credit for progress made over the last couple decades.

Also, were there a lot of commercial entities who were having conversations like these that non-profit arts organizations have been eschewing?  It seemed perhaps there was an implication of some norm that existed that cultural organizations are finally participating in. Non-profit folks are networking and sharing information at conferences, chamber of commerce meetings and rotary meetings, etc just like everyone else.

I will say though, it can be really difficult to make sure you are invited to the right meetings. If you look in the comment section of the NYT article, people were asking how they could join the call because the information wasn’t public. You had to know someone in order to receive the meeting link.

That dawned on me about a month ago as I bounced from one Zoom meeting hosted by charitable foundations to another Zoom meeting of local live event organizations (concert venues, sports teams, bars, etc.). I realized a number of people in the meeting I just left weren’t invited to the second meeting where topics like the governor’s orders on public assembly are discussed. I asked for about 20 additional groups to be invited to that second meeting and did see about eight show up to the last meeting.

Bottom line- regardless of my perceptions of how these meetings are characterized, an effort should be made to ensure they continue past the current crisis. Which means people who are invited need to commit to participating rather than blowing the meetings off. Just as important, we should continually be thinking about who might benefit from these conversations and take steps to see they are invited.


Innovation Results From Hard Work And Funding

In the Washington Post, Jon Gertner reviews a book about innovation by Matt Ridley.  One aspect of the book Gertner emphasizes is Ridley’s view that innovation is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration:

Ridley’s most important chapters, and his book’s most interesting, are where he calls attention to “surprisingly consistent patterns” that describe the process of making new things. Innovation, he tells us, is usually gradual, even though we tend to subscribe to the breakthrough myth….He also illustrates how innovation can be a matter of the right people solving the right problem at the right time — and that it often involves exhaustive trial-and-error work, rather than egg-headed theoretical applications. This was typically the case with Thomas Edison, who, as Ridley notes, tried 6,000 different organic materials in the search for a filament for his electric light.

Gertner’s criticism of the book is it underappreciates the contributions of government funding in that long process of trial-and-error exploration.

Thus, you won’t find a lot here about the development of the atomic bomb, which depended almost entirely on state largesse, or about the subsidization of renewable energy. Nor will you read much on the transistor, many early lasers or the photovoltaic solar cell, which were created under the auspices of Bell Labs, part of a government-authorized monopoly…. And in Ridley’s story about the origins of Google, you will not see any indication that its founders were helped in their earliest days by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Indeed, his book consistently plays down the influence of public funding in medicine, public health, personal technology, transportation and communications; it likewise minimizes — quite strenuously, and erroneously — the role of federal assistance in the development of natural gas fracking, which was kept alive by research investments from the Energy Department in the 1970s.

Reading this review, I realized in the 16+ years I have been writing this blog, I don’t think I have ever made a post that tied the lengthy process of creativity together with the importance of funding.

I have dealt with the topics separately. I have had a number of posts about how even creators often attribute their first big successes to some inherent stroke of genius or talent rather than to the 7 years of trial and error that lead to it.

I have also made posts about the importance of government and foundation funding to creative industries. I think the closest I may have come to directly tying both together are some posts I made about how people who have a support and expectations of relatively affluent families/friends are more able to participate in low paying internships/apprenticeships which can be highly important to networking and career development.

In any case, obviously innovation is a long term process which requires funding support and there aren’t a lot of entities willing to make that investment when it comes to creative arts.

By that same token, it shouldn’t be forgotten that businesses in general have benefited from government support of the basic research which constitutes the backbone of many of their products.

Perhaps all those calls for the arts to be run like a business should be answered by noting that contrary to all the garage origin stories of many famous companies, artists are often left to subsidize their own development. Additionally, the history of innovation of all types is one of government support.


Your Zoom Meeting Is Really Just An Early Performance Experience

At the end of last month, Nina Simon did the lead presentation for Opera America’s virtual conference. (Or perhaps it was just the lead presentation for the topic of “Creating Real Belonging.” I just saw there was a panel discussion on the topic that followed.)

She only specifically referenced opera for about 3 minutes of her 30 minute talk and some of her best ideas of the talk were in those three minutes so the whole thing is definitely applicable to any cultural discipline.

As you may or may not know Simon left her job at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History to devote herself full time to Of/By/For All, an entity whose goal is “to help civic and cultural organizations matter more to more people.”

If you have read my previous posts about her, you know she espouses efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming by creating new doors both in a physical and metaphorical sense through which more members of the community can enter and participate with the organization.

Lest people worry about carving up their physical spaces to literally install more doors, what that really means is that the context of space can be very important to how welcome people feel. For a show they had on surfing, people gathered at the beach. For a Día de los Muertos program her museum had hosted annually, people asked why the heck it was happening there rather than the historic cemetery the museum managed.

Perhaps the most immediately relevant issue tackled was what our audiences might look like post-Covid-19. She mentioned that there was an immense opportunity right now to shift who in the community felt included and welcomed at your organization.

She also astutely pointed out that regardless of what you do, in all likelihood your organization will have no choice in who feels welcome at your organization post-Covid-19. There are going to be people who no longer feel secure entering the public sphere to the degree they had before.

She notes that a lot of organizations are using social media to keep their March 2020 core audience engaged during a time they can’t physically be present. She says now is the time to use social media to begin building relationships with the new groups whom you want to feel welcome rather than just doubling down on retaining those who already like you.

And social media provides a two way street — because people can’t be out and about, they are talking about what matters to them and what they are looking forward to doing on social media at a volume they hadn’t before. Organizations can learn quite a lot about those groups with a little resourcefulness and effort.

Simon encourages organizations to be very specific about who they are targeting. She says it shouldn’t just be “teenagers,” but rather “teens who love to sing,” “teens who love fashion,” or “creative misfits seeking an outlet for expression.” Being curious about people on social media is a good place to start to figure out what makes them feel welcome in a place like yours.

The one suggestion she had in regard to opera made me laugh because it ran contrary to all current performance and Zoom etiquette. As many people have noted, historically attending a performance was a pretty raucous affair. Citing some similar commentary about an early performance at La Scala, she suggested holding a virtual opera performance on Zoom where all the attendees were unmuted.

As always, she said interesting stuff I haven’t covered so watch the video.


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