Is The Key Focusing On Accessibility First?

Via Artsjournal last week was an article about the London Short Film Festival using glasses technology developed by the National Theatre to provide captioning to D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences. From what I have been able to determine, the National Theatre started using the glasses with performances in 2018, though they unveiled the project in 2017. Apparently, in the first 6 months, they had 300 people use the glasses, “and more than 10% of these visitors hadn’t previously been to the National Theatre.”  The Leeds Playhouse became the first regional theatre in England to use the technology in April 2019.

I have written about the multiple attempts to provide program notes during a performance through various devices, including glasses and phones, that have never really seemed to get off the ground. I don’t know that I have previously come across an attempt using similar pieces of hardware to expand accessibility to a broader segment of a potential audience as with D/deaf and hard of hearing

From the National Theatre’s results, I wondered if a focus on accessibility might be a better initial goal on the road to eventually delivering program notes. The technological challenge of creating captions that not only provide the synchronized dialogue during a live performance, but also the names of the actors, notes on sound effects and offstage noises by cross referencing voice recognition, sound and lighting cues seems like a lot to take on. Anyone who has mastered that probably has tons of insight into folding in all the enhanced, interactive program materials those other projects hoped to provide.



Seeing Your Stories In The Audience

If you want to see a good example of a show that is answering people’s need to see themselves and their stories on stage, check out Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The show is on Netflix, but you can catch episodes on YouTube as well.

Actually, the best examples aren’t the show episodes but the Deep Cut videos. The show itself is scripted and addresses social, economic and political issues with comedy–attempting to communicate serious issues without feeling preachy.

The Deep Cuts are separate videos of conversations Minhaj has with the audience. At first it seemed they were using them to keep the show in people’s minds when there weren’t any new episodes being released. Now the Deep Cuts seem to be a feature of their own. Where they used to be only around 5 minutes long, they now rival the length of the regular episodes.

What I had noticed in some of the earliest episodes of the show was that there seemed to be a very racially mixed group of people in the front row of the audience. The fact I noticed this made me realize just how homogeneous live studio audiences tend to appear on TV. At first I was thinking he was making an effort to seat diverse faces in the front rows, but once I started seeing the Deep Cut episodes where the camera is turned toward the whole audience rather than just catching the first couple rows, I realized there was no difference between the first row and any other row.  (So if there was anyone who said there aren’t any Asians in NYC interested in seeing a show dealing with topical issues, Minhaj proves them wrong.)

The stuff the audience asks Minhaj runs the gamut from asking him to choose between two silly options to making fun of his enthusiastic hand gesturing to questions about pop culture and his relationship with his parents. Many of the questions are derived from his family background as Muslim immigrants from India, which again has dealt with everything from parental expectations and Bollywood references to more serious issues associated with that identity.

Or rather, the questions are derived from a SHARED experience and background. Minhaj often turns the question back on the person and gets their answer. It is as much seeing your stories in the audience as it is on stage.

In a recent Deep Cut episode, he discussed being on Ellen DeGeneres Show and correcting Ellen when she mispronounced Hasan. He said he saw his mother cringe in the audience and decided to address it. As a comedian, he did it in a light-hearted way, but he said his father was angry with him on the drive home. Minhaj observes that his father’s generation had to tolerate the indignity of having their names mispronounced in order to survive and make a place for their kids, but that he felt like it was his generation’s responsibility to hold people to make the effort to use their real names rather than convenient shorthand.

I think it is conversations and stories like that which help establish the sense of trust audiences need to feel assured that their faces and stories will be depicted with sincerity and accuracy.

Now how that translates into something arts organizations can bring to their homes, I don’t know. It is definitely different for every community. In some places it may be facilitated by humor, in other places, food.

Making a pitch to a local community to come see a comedian who will talk about the economic forces that make retirement increasingly impossible, but will also chat with the audience about his favorite hip hop artist and sneakers may garner no interest even though that describes an episode of Patriot Act. Not everyone can make the format work the same way and Minhaj put thousands of hours of sweat into his career before getting his show.

It is almost guaranteed that mistakes will be made.  Readers may recall my post about Mixed Blood Theater and the fits and false starts they experienced while trying to develop a meaningful program with the Somali community in their neighborhood.


Arts Marketing Is About Shared Interests, Not Demographics

Back in October Sara Leonard made a blog post for Americans for the Arts about marketing in the context of the “false-consensus effect,” the idea that your personal opinions, beliefs and interests are more widely shared than they actually are. She says this gets in the way of effectively promoting an experience to others

It makes sense; it’s such a logical starting point! We go to market an event and think to ourselves, “What do I think is cool about this?” or “Why would I want to go?” Or maybe we’re repeating what the artist themselves thinks is the key source of attraction to a given event, believing that the artist must know what’s good about their own work. But here’s the problem: we—you, me, artists—are NOT our average audience members…. Our job, as arts marketers, is to serve our current and prospective audiences a picture that connects with their interests and values in a package that evokes an experience they want to have. And to do that, we need to cast our imaginations beyond the limitations of our own perspectives and experiences, get to know what makes our people tick, and to imagine the other complexly and with respect.

She says the best approach is to employ three  W questions- Who? Where? Why do they care? But in addition to using these questions to segment the universe of potential audiences in order to properly target them, she suggests applying them in slightly different ways with those whom we already know versus those we don’t know yet. The latter group being people who rarely, if ever, participate in events we sponsor. (Though I suppose it could equally apply to people who might attend frequently with whom we have a pretty tenuous relationship in terms of understanding their motivations.)

What I appreciated about Sara’s perspective on this was that she reversed the order of her 3W questions when it came to people we don’t know yet. She asks “Why do they already care”   about some part of what is being offered first. From there she goes on to identify Who those people are and where connections with them might be made.

Perhaps the most salient point she exhorts readers to keep in mind came toward the end (my emphasis):

Your “who” groups should not be based solely on demographics. There is nothing about our demographic characteristics alone that explains WHY we spend our time and money the way we do, so let’s imagine and create connections based on shared interests and values first. Then, look around the room and see what demographic groups are missing. (Hint: That’s a “who” for next time…)


Making Singing “Ah” For Six Minutes Sound Interesting

Last week Vox had a backstage video on the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten. What I loved about it and wanted to call attention to was the way in which they made elements of the production that would be barriers for both new and existing audiences intriguing, potentially piquing curiosity.

I mean, if I told you the opera was sung in four different languages; featured a six minute period where everyone sang “ah!”; had a minimalist set; a costume festooned with baby heads; a cadre of professional jugglers; and period of full nudity, you might be a little wary about going.

Though that might sound more appealing than the description on the Met site:

Director Phelim McDermott tackles another one of Philip Glass’s masterpieces, following the now-legendary Met staging of Satyagraha. Star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is the title pharaoh, the revolutionary ruler who transformed ancient Egypt, with the striking mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in her Met debut as his wife, Nefertiti. To match the opera’s hypnotic, ritualistic music, McDermott has created an arresting vision that includes a virtuosic company of acrobats and jugglers. Karen Kamensek conducts in her Met debut.

Please be aware that this production contains some full-frontal nudity, which may not be suitable for young audiences.

The video starts out addressing the 6 minutes of “ah” pointing out that it is harder than it sounds, and showing the stars tackling it with grinning gusto and periods of frustration.  Charismatic star Anthony Roth Costanzo references the pharaoh, Akhnaten, the first to embrace monotheism, as a “totally fascinating, weird, complex guy.”

The video makes the whole idea of the trained voice accessible by having light hearted conversations about vocal warm ups disturbing the neighbors, working with Castanzo’s vocal coach in a living room–and then seguing to the importance of the first tone when the singer opens their mouth to deliver.

Then they talk about what sets composer Philip Glass’ minimalist approach apart from other operas.

They aren’t afraid to use unfamiliar terms like “sitzprobe” because after defining it, they talk about why it is important — the singers and musicians come together for the first time after weeks of working apart–and it is an exciting time. They also illustrate how much work it is to bring all these pieces together – how easy it is to fall out of time and how the conductor and the prompter keep the musicians and singers synchronized with each other.

The reason for having 12 jugglers is explained. The viewer gets a sense of how the swiftly moving balls are a counterpoint to the music and slow movement of the rest of the performers and how the balls and massive sun are tied symbolically.

Even the nudity is addressed with Costanzo discussing the experience of descending 12 steps over the course of three minutes staring directly at 4000 people while completely naked.

Actually, at the end of the video Costanzo discusses the whole challenge of the opera:

“If I told you you’re going to come see a minimalist 3.5 hour opera about ancient Egypt, where there is no real story and it is sung in ancient Egyptian, you’d think ‘Man, there is no way I am going to that.’ And yet, I bet you are going to love it.”

I will be the first to tell you, whoever put this 10 minute video together spent a lot of time and money on it.

However, it succeeded in making the show seem interesting and accessible due to the way it framed the information it was presenting, not because of the high production values. You are interested in learning more because you like the people and they talk about what they are doing in a relatable way. There is nothing in the video to refute a claim that the nudity is gratuitous, but there is probably going to be a part of you that is cheering Costanzo on because he is literally manifesting the nightmare about walking into work naked.

I offer this as an example of how to talk about your work and diminish the intimidation/ perception of strangeness newer audiences may experience.


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