The Way It Used to Be

We (meaning bloggers and various and sundry arts writers) often talk about how the arts attendance experience was a lot less like the staid and proper process of sitting in a dark room facing a stage. However, other than a few generalizations, we didn’t have much to offer in the way of concrete specifics.

Or at least that has been the case here at Butts In The Seats.

Fortunately, blogger and arts critic Terry Teachout comes to the rescue with an article about the good old days in Commentary this month. Since he addresses piano concerts people who perform or attend such concerts probably have a better idea about some of the things to which he refers. It is clear to the general audience that things were a little looser by today’s standards. There was more embellishment and improvisation even from the composers themselves.

“…British composer Charles Villiers Stanford heard Johannes Brahms play his Second Piano Concerto, he observed that the composer ‘took it for granted that the public knew he had written the right notes, and did not worry himself over such little trifles as hitting the wrong ones. . . . [T]hey did not disturb his hearers any more than himself.'”

Liszt apparently had a urn placed in lobbies and would sit at the piano reviewing the suggestions placed within by audience members and would chat with them between pieces. Audience members, for their part “…thought nothing of applauding not merely between movements, but in order to pay tribute to a particularly well-played passage in the middle of a piece.”

It is dishonest in a sense to talk about “how things used to be” because the reality was that these gentlemen were the popular musicians of their time and everything Teachout cites is no different than attending a contemporary music concert today. Musicians improvise on their own work knowing that the audience is aware of the more perfect version produced in a studio but don’t care that they aren’t playing it exactly like the album. The audience will applaud during the opening notes of the song, after the solo and will sing along. Unless you are the only one singing and are out of tune and drunk, no one generally cares.

Teachout says he is not encouraging a raucous free for all, but a general loosening of some aspects of the experience. I am familiar enough with classical music to be certain, but I imagine I would agree with him. I wouldn’t necessarily want people walking through the aisles hawking oranges while I am watching Shakespeare. The language is so complex and delicious that you need to devote a bit more attention than you would at a Mamet play which, truth be told, has a complexity and deliciousness of language of its own.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine someone associated with an orchestra would say the same thing about the product they offer. It may have been popular entertainment at one time, but it does require more attentiveness to appreciate these days.

The Secret Lives of Theatre Managers

My picture was in the paper this Friday for an extra-curricular activity I engage in. It had been taken a few weeks ago so when someone mentioned they had seen me, I discounted it. Since then I have been congratulated and razzed by everyone from co-workers to my dentist.

As I was leaving work this evening, the assistant theatre manager said I should put the photo up on our website to humanize the organization a little. I dismissed the idea because the organization isn’t about me and the goofy poses I take while not at work.

As I drove home, I started having second thoughts. People don’t support organizations, they support and donate to people. That is one of the reasons why I generally make a short curtain speech enjoining people to turn off their cellphones, pointing out the fire exits and telling them what a wonderful time they are about to have. I could record this stuff but the human element is eliminated. Certainly having someone in the lobby to congratulate, complain or petition that they can recognize helps with audience relations, too.

But do they really care about what I do in my off time? My supermarket was posting banners showing how different employees were working in the community as volunteers. Presumably this was to influence people to identify more closely and positively with the supermarket as a community entity. My staff and I are pretty much wrapped up in our jobs at the theatre and hardly have enough time to generate the same credibility.

Those banners struck me as a little manipulative anyway. As with everything, humanizing yourself has to be done correctly for the community. I don’t know how well it did in Milwaukee, but I thought the video the Milwaukee Symphony did for the opening of their season worked well in this regard. They filmed concert master Frank Almond talking about the upcoming season as they follow him around his house. What really worked for me was that they had his daughter dancing and twirling around the living room and zipping across the back deck on a scooter. It made me comfortable listening to him talk about his violin and the music he was going to play. The video made me feel like I would be able to understand and feel something from the music being played during their season.

It would really be great if they would let me twirl around in the aisles like Frank’s daughter.

I am not quite sure if the dynamic between my organization and community is one where learning about the hobbies of the staff will positively influence our audience’s perception of us. More to the point, I am not sure if I want my audience having a relationship with my private life.

Professionals and Pro Ams

In her column in this month’s American Theatre, Theatre Communications group Executive Director, Teresa Eyring talks about the recognizing the growing number of Professional Amateurs in our society. Now this topic is nothing new. I have posted on the subject of Pro Ams. Andrew Taylor has done so on a number of occasions. His students did a research project on the topic. Charles Leadbetter and Paul Miller who coined the Pro Am term, wrote a book on the subject.

What makes Teresa Eyring’s comments special is that she leads a major service organization and therefore is in a position to exert greater influence when she says it is worthwhile to heed a trend. (Though she was certainly influenced by all this discussion of Pro Ams.) What she has to say hasn’t impacted my thoughts about Pro Ams in any direction. But it is good to see an arts leader like her encouraging people to explore the possibilities.

So if the words of all the aforementioned folks haven’t gotten you to ponder the concept, maybe Eyring’s will. She acknowledges that a transition that embraces Pro Ams can be difficult.

“If these shifts are irreversible and true, the question for professional arts organizations is how most effectively to embrace and respect audiences and potential audiences as they self-identify as creators, with a capacity for meaningful involvement in the artistic process that has often been closely held by professional theatre artists and organizations.”…

“…For theatres and theatre artists, this trend presents questions that are both practical and semantic, such as: What do we do with the word “professional”? In the 20th-century arts world, this word has often been used to instruct the public, critics and funders to expect an experience qualitatively superior to that which is non-professional or amateur…”

“…However, with the growth of a pro-am culture that goes beyond art into science, technology and other realms, the power of a professionals-only province continues to fade—or at the very least, the nomenclature is less effective and meaningful. Some of the teeth-gnashing over this development has to do with how the public will know the difference between what is excellent creative expression and what is merely average…”

“…if theatres can find ways to tap into the growing interest among individuals in participating in the actual creation of art and the arts experience, perhaps we can move this trend to a tipping point of sorts, bringing theatre into a new period of cultural ferocity and ascendancy.”

Social Hubs, The Next Thing Comin’ Round?

Scott Walters says I feel it. Since that is about all I saw of his entry on Technorati, I was wondering what it was that I feel. Turns out that I, among others feel that change in the theatre/arts is nigh.

In looking at what the other bloggers cited were saying, I came across some interesting thoughts worthy of consideration and debate in the arts world on The Mission Paradox blog both in the proposition author Adam Thurman makes in his entry and a comment that Chris Casquilho makes.

Thurman proposes that the arts position themselves as a social hub placing the audience first and artists second.

“We keep talking about finding ways for people to connect with our particular art form.

But people don’t want to connect to art . . . they want to connect to other people.

So instead of a theatre company seeing their performance on stage that night as the point of the evening, perhaps they should just see themselves as the hub . . . as the thing that connects all the people in the audience to each other…

…I think what people are willing to pay for is to be connected to other people.

And maybe one of the reasons that the arts is struggling is because we insist on being the focal point of the whole process….

…Think of what could happen if, for example, instead of just having ushers leading people to their seats, your dance company had people in the aisle introducing patrons to other patrons?”

What Chris Casquilho argues is something akin to the Gifts of the Muse premise that the arts are not well served by arguing their value in economic terms rather than their intrinsic value. Casquilho notes that being a social hub is hardly a function that only the arts can fulfill.

“…while “art for arts’ sake” is a pretty goofy concept – syntactically and otherwise – if the mission of arts organizations is not to create art, then it begs the question: isn’t there some better way to “connect people in a renewing environment?”

Couldn’t you easily succeed at that mission by offering classes on boat building, or starting a folf (sic) league? When push comes to shove, with no artists, there is no art. If your arts organization puts the needs of the community above the needs of the artist, you will turn your product into lukewarm porridge, lightly salted to taste.”

Now it seems to me that these two concepts aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Having your ushers introduce audience members to each other before a show is hardly going to detract from the quality of a performance. (Unless your ushers and performers are one in the same, in which case you got bigger problems to worry about.) It is an intriguing idea. Providing more sophisticated and labor intensive opportunities for people to connect, on the web for example, as Thurman mentions elsewhere in his entry, could certainly mean other programs may suffer for want of resources. This could be a good thing if print advertising decreased in a community where online presence was becoming increasingly more effective.

The thing that worries me is that arts organizations have a tendency to subscribe to the newest trends without considering how to most appropriately implement them or even if it makes sense to do so. The best way to get funding is talk about economic benefits and outreach to under served communities? Find studies that prove the first and create programs that provide to the second.

Certainly, part of the blame resides with funders who decide these are the priorities they are going to primarily reward. When a staffer at my state arts foundation told me last Fall not to bother with a section of a grant application because I wasn’t eligible, I have to admit a sense of relief at not having to arrange for a way to comply to the requirements. (I wasn’t so relieved to find our grant award significantly reduced as a result of not being eligible.)

My concern then is that there will be this sudden rush to make one’s organization into a community hub or rationalize how what the organization is already doing is making it a hub. It will become all about butts in the seats again, only for slightly different reasons. While some will do a great job at it, I suspect that the real winners will be coffee and wine shops whose wares become props for the social programs.

So since I have this soapbox from which to speak, let me just encourage everyone to think before they act this time around. Maybe the new big thing isn’t Social Hubs. Whatever it is, think about your effort rather than duplicating another’s even if it takes longer to create your own plan.