Escapism Over Escape

Historically, theater fires have been among some of the worst in terms of loss of life and property damage. Improvements in firefighting equipment and building design and construction have fortunately made most of those tragic tales infrequent, relative to the situation in the late 19th and early 20th century. An article on New York City theatre fires in Lapham’s Quarterly during this time period illustrates what significantly increased the hazard and opportunity for loss of life were gross misrepresentations of the safety of theaters coupled with a lack of effort to improve the conditions.

To combat the growing reputation of theaters as death traps, New York City impresarios began to advertise their venues by stressing just how safe they were—without changing the actual structures. In 1901 the top of the Broadway Theater’s playbills, above the production information, read “Safest theater in the world—34 exits.” That same year, the Knickerbocker’s playbills stated that it was “Absolutely Fireproof.” By 1904 the Majestic was billing itself as “New York’s finest—the world’s safest theater—positively fireproof—42 exits,” and by 1906 the Colonial was claiming it was “absolutely fireproof—this theater has the lowest insurance rate issued to any theater in the world.”

…According to Gerhard’s report, as of 1899 New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater could hold 1,400 people but be emptied in 2.5 minutes, while the Abbey Theater could hold 1,450 people and be emptied in 1.5 minutes. The enormous Madison Square Garden, which could hold 17,000 people, apparently required only 4.5 minutes for complete evacuation.

These hypothetically efficient evacuations were impossible to execute, however. Theaters and movie theaters often were illegally packed to standing-room-only capacity, with additional bodies blocking potential routes of egress. Furthermore, Gerhard found that the doors were locked in many of the buildings, and many of the exits first wound through basements or alleyways. Some exits even led to wooden staircases. Families and young children were frequently given permission to be seated in the highest galleries, which made their top-priority exits more difficult.

What is interesting is reading about how much the theater owners and managers resisted safety procedures fearing the optics of making people aware of fire exits would make people consider other diversions. A good number of the bad choices were preserved in the name of maintaining the escapist environment of the theater.

Among the reforms that had been suggested were having firemen walk out on stage at the start of the evening holding placards directing people’s attention to the nearest exits. It was pretty much exactly what flight attendants do on a plane today. When it was brought up in a meeting of theater managers, there was a great deal of push back out of fear of panicking audience members or souring the experience by suggesting the theater was unsafe. According to the article, actors would see a fire but would continue performing in order to maintain the facade they had constructed. In at least one case, opening a door caused a cross draft sending the fire the actors were observing flaring into the seating area.

It is something to think about as live performances try to compete with digital forms of entertainment. What lengths are people willing to go in order to provide the immersive experience they believe is required. What corners will be cut? I have already seen hints of this where occasionally contracts request/require no pre-show announcements or stipulate they occur so early only half the audience sees them. I don’t imagine any of this would expose current audiences to the dangers looming silently over 19th & early 20th century audiences, but the lessons of those times bear consideration.

It’s Annual Appeal Time?! My Papercuts Still Haven’t Healed From Last Year’s Envelop Stuff-A-Thon

As Thanksgiving approaches, your anxiety level may be rising at the prospect of spending uncomfortable meals with relatives, engaging in an even shorter official Christmas shopping season than usual, and getting your annual appeal letter out.

I can’t help you much on the first two, but a couple years ago Fracture Atlas posted their helpful “Procrastinators’ Guide to Sending a Year-End Appeal”

Reading their guide might cause you a little bit more anxiety at first when they suggest the appeal consist of three different missives rather than one, but I promise there is a method in their apparent madness that aims to make the whole process productive for you. (my emphasis)

The centerpiece could be a 1-2 page letter mailed in a pretty envelope with a seasonal stamp. This will set the flavor for your whole campaign, aesthetically and thematically. Your “sides” could be a follow-up email about two weeks later, with a final email request within the last few days of the year. Make sure there’s a visual through-line in these materials and that they reference each other, otherwise the recipient may not recognize that the materials are related.

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I talk about the importance of marketing materials being focused on the experience of the participant rather than on the importance of the organization or performer. The appeal letter is no different. Juliana Steele who wrote the Fractured Atlas piece says the emphasis should be on the impact the donor can have and be positive in tone rather than focused on the organization and its frightening dire need.

While it may be true that your program, production, or exhibition will have to scale back if you don’t raise the appropriate funds, remind them of what you will be able to do with their support, not what you won’t be able to do. The holidays may have them stressed out — give them inspiration!

Other suggestions Steele makes deal with the logistics of the ask–including specifically asking for a donation rather than implying it. Projecting success is important, but not the appearance of wasteful spending. Steele says the letter should be printed on good paper, but nothing so fancy that people become concerned about organizational priorities.

It should be easy for people to return their check in a return envelop or make a donation online. The more steps people need to take to get funds to you, the greater a chance their process will stall along the way.

Of course, sometimes the hardest part of writing an appeal letter is just getting started. Take it from someone who learned to type on an actual typewriter–the best thing about word processing is that the time cost of writing more than will be ultimately necessary is near zero. Starting to write anything knowing you will edit it down moves you closer to the end goal faster than staring at a blank screen. (These blog posts don’t come easy a lot of times and often evolve a fair bit from the topic I started writing about.)

Steel provides the following advice along those lines:

Writing a letter that is inspiring can be challenging and anxiety producing. Honestly, all you can do is sit down and get words on paper. Turn off the television, navigate away from your inbox, read appeals from other organizations, and make a list of all the amazing stuff you do (and will do next year). After a while, you will have something to work with and build upon.

Museum, The Video Game

Via a social post ArtsMidwest made, there is a museum management game coming out next year called Mondo Museum. Thinking back to all the posts Nina Simon had made on Museum 2.0 over the years, my first thoughts were that there was no way a game could really encompass all the ways in which a museum needs to work to become relevant to their community.

Then my misgivings started to move toward 10 on the dial when I read the following:

Success is quantified in two ways: money, which comes from ticket sales and gift shop revenue; and prestige, which is measured by visitor numbers and their experiences. These metrics feed each other: a prestigious museum will have high foot traffic, while a big-budget will give you more opportunities to please audiences.

Granted, the game designer wants Mondo Museum to have the widest appeal possible so these are terms which general players could best understand, but revenue and visitors are hardly the best measures of a museum’s real value.

My concerns began to dial back when I read there would be some nuance required in the curation of displays and that the designers were cognizant of some important conversations associated with museum collections.

Curating shows that draw meaningful connections between disparate collections—like a model of the solar system next to ancient Egyptian astronomical tools, the designer suggests—will earn you points.

[…]

Yet, by and large, the game is not about replicating the modern museum. Instead, it posits an alternative form of institution, one free from colonial histories, strict genre restraints, and underpaid labor.

In the world of Mondo, art is never purchased, and artifacts are never obtained through imperialism or theft; all historical objects live in institutions near to where they were created

In an interview in another article, the game creator commented:

…if anyone is brought in will likely be to review specific collections for cultural sensitivity issues we might have been oblivious to. For example, someone recently brought up the debates museums have around the subject of human remains when making exhibits about ancient burial practices and so on, which I hadn’t considered before. That kind of insight is really helpful (in our case, this helped me decide to only have mummified animals because a) they’re actually pretty cute while human mummies are pretty gross and b) a human mummy is kind of unnecessary since the real interesting artefact/art is the coffin and sarcophagus).

No video game is going to perfectly replicate all the considerations of running a museum. (I mean what museum can operate entirely on earned revenues, with a well-paid unionized staff,  avoiding grant writing, fund raising galas and thorny ethical questions about accepting large donations?)

As the creator discovered, there aren’t actually any museum management games out there. The fact that the game encourages people to draw thematic connections between seemingly disparate topics in curating displays and requires you to source objects through exchanges with legitimate sources means it introduces people to some good processes and practices.

No One Has Been So Energized About You Visiting The Bathroom Since Your Parents Potty-Trained You

If you want to read a great story about taking the initiative to provide great customer service, check out the story about Tonya Heath, head usher at the Forrest Theatre where Hamilton is being performed in Philadelphia.  She has undertaken one of the most important tasks of all — guiding the women’s restroom line at intermission.

After two weeks of porcelain chaos, she knew she had to do something.

So she assigned herself to bathroom duty and now ropes in at least two other ushers to help her. It would be devastating, she says, for someone to miss the beginning of Act Two.

[…]

Heath climbs on top of a piano bench outside the bathroom and makes an announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. We are at minute five out of a 20-minute intermission, which means I have 15 minutes to get you into this bathroom. I’ve formed a serpentine line. And it works. It only takes about six minutes from that door to get you in this bathroom.”

“All I need you to do,” Heath tells the crowd, “is trust me and trust your sisters.”

[…]

But then the lights flicker, the ladies in line seem to collectively gasp: “Nooooo,” women say. They don’t want to miss even a minute of Hamilton, a show for which people paid as much as $499 a seat. Should they throw away their spot?

“All right, my loves, we are approaching minute 13. That was a scare tactic,” she says. “That’s how we get people into their seats a little bit faster. We’re only at minute 13. I promised you 20 minutes. We have about seven to eight minutes to get you back upstairs.”

Heath sings her instructions: “Stay in lineeeee.”

The crowd that a few seconds ago seemed terrified is now clapping and cheering.

This is one of the best examples of embodying the ideals of relationship building using the arts’ inherent home field advantage I have come across in a really long time. The only issue with promoting her as a reward is that she might be taken out of direct contact with audiences and her natural talent would be difficult to teach to others. (None of which should used as an excuse for not promoting and paying her more, of course.)

I also have to give some props to Philadelphia Inquirer write Ellie Silverman who put in the effort to add some tips at the end of the article about where to use the restroom in the neighborhood before you get to the theater; how to tell when intermission is arriving so you can be prepared for the mad rush to the restrooms; but also not to assume there are any boring parts you can skip out of to use the restrooms during the show.

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