Live From Our Fire Escape

Today Drew McManus had a post on Adaptistration titled “In the Age Of COVID, Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention.” This was pretty timely because I had my own tale of adapting to the times to tell.

This weekend at my venue, we hosted our first live event since March -an outdoor cabaret performance on our fire escape. (Not so much an invention, I suppose since the first thing people did when the pandemic started was sing from their apartment windows and fire escapes.)

As you can see from the pictures below, we have a pretty substantial fire escape with multiple levels that can be used for performance. Since this was our first time out and we didn’t want to expose more of our equipment to the summer heat and possible rain than necessary, we limited our activities to one level.

The audience sat in our parking lot. As you can see, we prepped the parking lot by chalking out seating pods. The seating was general admission and we undersold what we imagined our capacity to be in order to provide both our audience and ourselves with the flexibility to see how things developed.

We determined the size and number of pods to create by analyzing the ticket purchasing patterns. We drew out two person, four person, six person and in one case 10 person, pods based on how people purchased their tickets. The pods were spaced to allow six feet between groups of unrelated people. Then we allowed enough room on the perimeter for people who felt the need for greater distancing to set up as they wanted.

Our aim was to observe how many people chose the pods versus the open areas in order to get a sense of what our actual capacity for the space might be while ensuring good sightlines. We capped the event at 175 people, but now figure we can get up to about 250 and still ensure appropriate spacing and flexibility in seating location.

Our local mask ordinance requires that if you are anywhere outside your home within six feet of a person with whom you do not live, you must wear a mask. The example given is if you are waiting at a crosswalk alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if someone arrives to wait with you, you need to be wearing one.

Since people were coming with picnic set-ups or could grab food from partner restaurants and didn’t have to wear a mask while eating, our policy was you could only sit with people in your household and could remove your mask while seated in your pod with them. Since moving to and from that space requires becoming closer to others, you needed to wear a mask as you moved about everywhere else. By and large everyone heeded the rule and those that didn’t we firmly prodded to comply.

One bit of fortunate timing was about three weeks ago the local government expanded permission to have open containers on downtown streets from First Friday only to every night between 4 pm-10 pm to allow bar patrons to use sidewalk tables restaurants and the downtown association had deployed. This allowed us to serve alcohol out of our own bar which helped improve the financial situation of the event.

Overall, it was regarded as a success and we are planning to run at least one more before it gets too cool this Fall. Stay tuned.

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.

Going To A Museum To Gather Information

I saw an article about an interview with Kimberly Drew on Slate that I really liked. Drew had a book come out, This Is What I Know About Art .

What grabbed my attention was Drew defining a museum experience as information gathering in the same sense as entering a library.

Museums fall within the larger field of GLAM—art galleries, libraries, and museums—where you’re not supposed to go there knowing everything. That’s the myth of museums. You don’t have to know every single book when you go into a library. You go to a library to gather information, and we should be looking at museums in the same way. We go into museums or enter museum websites to garner information, and hopefully we leave knowing more than what we came in with. But somewhere along the line, it became like, “I don’t get it,” or, “If I don’t know this, this, or this, then I shouldn’t go.” That’s one of the greater barriers to access

Drew is pretty passionate about museums. In the conversation between her and the interviewer, there is a fair bit of discussion about all the expectations of what an experience is supposed to be that weigh down the experience. They say that not only can’t a museum account for all contexts influencing how people are interacting with art, sometimes the person who normally spends hours in a gallery is coming in to get out of the rain for a half hour or because they feel like getting out during their lunch hour.

This is obviously applicable to all disciplines and their respective audiences. Along those lines, Drew acknowledges sometimes timing is everything. She says despite there being hundreds of visual arts related blogs out there before her’s, when she started her Black Contemporary Art Tumblr page, it aligned with a need from people who were passionate and curious, but didn’t have the resources to learn and were alienated by the way art was presented in museums and galleries.

Based on this, Drew is an advocate for providing different paths which allow people to interact with your organization: website, blog, video content, etc., as an accompaniment for the physical experience you offer.

There is a recording of the full interview from which the article is excerpted if you want to absorb the whole conversation. (There is also a transcript, but it is auto-generated by software and attributes Drew’s words to 4-5 separate speakers which gets confusing.)

Fulfilling Mission Vs. Fulfilling Design

Drew McManus has recently rolled out a video podcast on the Adaptistration site with the goal of addressing topics facing the orchestra business. Today, he posted the second episode title, Art Has Always Been Political, with guests Jason Haaheim and Weston Sprott.

They get to discussing the familiar topic of how the non-profit model in the U.S. has tended to reinforce the values and demographic composition of those who had the money to support non-profits. Right around the 23:10 mark, Sprott approaches the fact many arts organizations reflect a very wealthy, Caucasian demographic from the point of view of mission vs. design.

He says that many arts non-profits fail to live up to their mission statements, mostly by virtue of the fact that those statements are idealized visions of reality.  From the design perspective, they are operating exactly as intended:

“…if you shift the paradigm and think, is this organization serving the group of people that it was designed to serve, then that is yes…Now that doesn’t mean that the group of people that it was designed to serve is the correct group or an inclusive group, but it is what it was designed to serve.  If you have an administration and a board and everyone that funds you fits in one, in general, to one demographic, then it’s not surprising that the people that perform and the people that attend the concerts…all fit into that demographic.  It was designed to be that way.

I don’t think that a lot of opera companies or The Met, for example, were designed with the idea that we want to make sure that people from all cultures and backgrounds, including black people and brown people and other groups who are marginalized feel like they are truly comfortable in our space. So that is a different question..Does our mission say we reach those people? Yeah it does. Was our organization designed  to reach those people and is it structured to reach those people? It’s not.

This reinforces what Nina Simon says in The Art of Relevance  about needing to create more doors through which the people you wish to serve can enter. While some of those doors may indeed be physical if you are designating space for new people, in most cases they are conceptual. But require no less effort than a construction project in order to properly revise staffing, board composition, funding, programming so that the organization is designed to serve this broader range of people.


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