My Butt in the Seats of Your Neighborhood Stage

This weekend I was a guest on the Your Neighborhood Stage podcast. (July 14 episode, number 3.21). The folks over there let me talk for a real long time on a lot of issues. In the course of the conversation, I promoted the iPod idea I had blogged on before. I had listened to some of their earlier podcasts to get a sense of what I was in for and one of the on going issues they have discussed is inverting the idea that “all good things must percolate down from Broadway.” They were trying to find a way that things could be developed at a local level and percolate up in much the same way niche interests suddenly explode into popular consciousness via YouTube.

It occurred to me that while local theatres couldn’t really hope to get anything on Broadway via the current development path, they could be the place where the innovations that reinvigorate the performing arts are cultivated. As I note in my interview, the stakes are pretty high on Broadway but somewhat less so on the local level. (Not to understate the impact of even small financial losses on local theatres.) But with the rise of Pro-Ams (Professional Amateurs) who have both passion and increased access to technology, there exists the potential for great things to result from unorthodox approaches and experimentation.

There were some other issues we discussed like censorship in a production of Ragtime near Chicago, copyright infringement in an Akron production of Urinetown (the earlier case from the 90s I refer to is L! V! C! in Boca Raton- covered in NY Times, 8th paragraph down) and whether bloggers who review can be sued for defamation.

If ever you wanted to hear my voice, albeit a little distorted (my fault, mostly) or simply just want to sip at the fount of my wisdom in audio form, give it a listen.

Oh, I just also note. When co-host Staci Cobb was praising me and said “Go You!” I thought she said “Go UF” and was tweaking me as a Florida State University grad by cheering on the University of Florida. It is only as I listened to the podcast that I realized I misheard her. I am sure both hosts were a little perplexed when I joked about her razzing me.

Suffering Your Own Penalties

Via Arts and Letters Daily, there is an intriguing article in Reason Magazine about how penalties for undesirable behavior can actually result in more poor behavior if people perceived paying the penalty as license to continue.

Citing a study in Science, Ronald Bailey gives the example of six Israel day cares who instituted a fee to penalize people who pick their children up late. Instead of solving the problem, this made it worse.

According to Bowles: “The fine seems to have undermined the parents’ sense of ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as just another commodity they could purchase.”

The same thing happened in an experiment in Columbia. Researchers were conducting a game where people were involved with divvying up forest resources. The results of many scenarios reflected concern for the resources and other users until a situation that simulated government control fined those who overused their alloted share. People felt paying the fine justified pursuing their short term interests rather than the interests of the whole.

I tried to think of ways the arts might be providing disincentives for their audiences to act in the interests of the organization, audience or community through what they perceive to be penalties. I haven’t really thought of anything but maybe something will occur to you readers.

First thing that came to mind were the ticket fees we charge for buying tickets online or over the phone but might not charge if people come to the window. Or that we charge a lower price for subscriptions and buying single tickets before a certain date.

But neither of these things seem to create an incentive for people to buy early. I don’t think it creates a disincentive either. I think people are just busy and have changed their buying practices.

Next I wondered if holding people in the lobby for late seating hoping they, (and those they annoy when they are seated), are discomforted enough that they arrive promptly next time might have some unintended consequences. It is easy to foresee that both late comers and those seated are likely to be annoyed by the timing of the late seating interval even if it has reduced 14 potential interruptions to one. No surprise there.

It is likewise easy to anticipate reactions to policies like; No food in theatre, no exchanges or refunds, no video taping and no cell phones. Perhaps no cell phone policies and signal jammers may have caused a rise in texting, (I seem to remember jammers don’t impact texting frequencies, just voice) but even that is not unforeseen. As annoying as the glowing screens can be, it isn’t as bad as having someone pull out their cell phone and say, “Yeah, I am in the theatre. No, no, I can talk,” in the middle of a performance.

So does anyone know of a policy that was meant to control undesirable behavior that has essentially reinforced it? Drop me an email or comment below.

Lots of Summer Fun In The Backyard

If you were a canny arts administrator (or are a leader of a particularly nimble arts organization) you may have foreseen that high gas prices would be forcing people to engage in staycastioning this summer. If you don’t know what a staycastion is…well good for you. As far as I am concerned it is a sign that most mainstream media outlets don’t have any original ideas or the fortitude to resist parroting others. A staycation is a vacation you spend at home. When I was a kid that is what we called a regular vacation. To listen to the MSM, you would think it was a new cultural movement.

Fortunately, we have the Daily Show to make fun of their silliness.

My grumbling rants aside, the fact people are staying at home provides a good opportunity for arts organizations and communities in general to make citizens aware of the enjoyable resources available in the area. What better time to convince people how convenient seeing a show is during busier times of the year than when they have taken the time to slow down and look around?

So if you had the foresight to realize this window of opportunity was opening maybe you have created incentives to get people in the door or launched a campaign to make people aware of your services. If you haven’t, maybe you are as nimble enough to take advantage of this trend. Sure gas might be just as expensive next summer so you think you can wait. But people might be inured to the cost after a year and be looking to get away.

Or you could be like me and are working in an empty building as everyone takes the vacations and comp time they have earned toiling throughout the last 10 months and would be in danger of having heavy objects fall on your head if you suggested adding new programs over the summer.

Personally, I think that if you are going to have some sort of summer program, it shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Working cooperatively with the local arts council, chamber of commerce, municipal government, etc., to make people aware of the pleasurable encounters they can have right at home just seems like the most logical step. I think attending a picnic where there is a band/orchestra/puppet show/miscellaneous performance happening as the sun sets and the baseball game wraps up embeds itself deeper in the memory as a pleasurable experience than attending a slew of First Night performances. Ah, I am feeling a little laconic just thinking about it.

Next summer isn’t really too late. I pretty much said that in order to motivate those who can mobilize this year. Start working on next summer now. See if you can get local government involved. It is a great PR opportunity for your mayor to stand up as the winter starts to break next year and say, “Hey, we know you ended up hanging around town last summer. This coming summer we are going to make you happy you did and proud of your community by offering you X, Y, Z activities in cooperation with all these organizations and businesses in our community.”

Heck, there is an election coming up. If the people in office aren’t helpful, talk to the people running against them about your idea. They can get up and talk about how they empathize with those facing high gas prices and how they planning programs to enhance the value of living in the community.

Donors With Baggage

There was a short piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website about fund raising (subscription required). What caught my eye was some of the insights it provided about how people money and the act of donating it. The story cites Laura Fredricks, a former fundraiser for Pace University and Temple University, who addressed attendees at Fund Raising Day in New York 2008 last week.

Much of what I read and heard at conferences about fund raising primarily deals with strategies for developing a relationship with a donor and convincing them to support your organization. In some respects, much of the advice has been similar to what is given in regard to dating. Some of the advice is a little aggressive and cutthroat and some advocates a more practical and sensitive approach. (Of course, there is also the “be content being single” camp but that philosophy doesn’t quite work in fundraising.)

In any case the advice generally focuses on a somewhat formulaic planned approach. Just as dating tips rarely acknowledge that other people have the baggage of past dating experiences which will impact the relationship you are trying to cultivate, I rarely hear/read a similar acknowledgment in connection with fund aising.

One of the anecdotes mentioned in the story was about a wealthy developer who never gave more than $1,000 at a time to Temple. When Fredricks asked why, she discovered that even though he could afford to give more, he harbored fears about running out of money that went back to his childhood.

She recognizes that the people who ask for money like presidents and trustees also have varying degrees of comfort with the subject. “They should be treated the same way donors are—as individuals with different emotions about money—and given simple requests, she said. Instead of giving a reticent board member a list of prospective donors, Fredricks suggested starting out with the names and biographical information of two current donors and then asking the trustee to call them to say thank you.”

Back when I was fresh out of grad school I remember having a conversation with someone about fund raising. I don’t quite remember who it was but the comment was made that you couldn’t ask someone to make a large contribution of money until you had made a large contribution yourself. The idea was that if you had done so you could empathize with what motivated someone to donate that much to something they believed in and could also understand how making such a donation impacted their standard of living.

At the time a $50 would have had dire consequences on my standard of living so I really wasn’t ready to do serious fund raising at that point in my career. Some of the other advice given at the Fund raising Day in New York meeting actually revolved around this idea. One person suggested requesting large donors make the ask for similarly large gifts.

One last tip that caught my eye which might be rather difficult for some arts organizations to embrace given perennially precarious financial straits. “Don’t show your desperation, no matter how far you are from hitting your goal. You’re not raising money to keep your organization from going out of business.” Yeah, right! That little bit of advice came from Michael Margitich, senior deputy director for external affairs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The approach he said he used while at Columbia University was “he was raising additional funds to ‘maintain our level of excellence.'”