Fezzik Was Right!

In the movie, The Princess Bride, the character Fezzik talks about how fighting one man is different than fighting a group. (It is right around 1:35) In fact, according to the powerful giant, it can be tougher to fight one person than a group.

It a lesson I relearned this past week when we were hosting a one person show. When we have a group of people visit to perform, even if they number as small as three, they are generally mutually reliant and supporting. They work out their schedule among each other and get themselves where they are going. With a single person, the dynamic changes and the relationship with them can become more intimate.

I had approached last week thinking that the group before had presented little difficulty and how much less a problem an individual would be. In some respects it was, but in many other aspects the performer’s visit consumed much more of my time and attention than most groups do.

For example, groups generally take their meals together be it catered in house or driving to a nearby restaurant. Smaller groups might invite staff and crew to take meals with them but with an individual, the opportunity presents itself more often and feels natural. Last week I ended up eating dinner out more times than I ever have since moving here. I was late or missed events I frequent weekly as a result.

While I regularly escort performers to their hotel after meeting them at the airport, there are times I don’t if they feel comfortable driving themselves. Last week I waited around 4 hours to escort him while he unpacked and set up at the theatre. Sure I would have rather gone home, but he was in a strange city, it was raining and while it is easy to get to the hotel, he didn’t have anyone to help him navigate.

Working with an individual performer doesn’t always present challenges. The dinner conversation was great. In fact, I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to take him around to a more diverse group of restaurants. Last year I was driving a single performer to the theatre to rehearse and took a 20 minute detour to a scenic overlook because the she kept admiring how beautiful it was and I knew she would appreciate the view. These usually aren’t options that even enter consideration with groups. One’s relationship with individuals is more likely to feel like a guest and host or even familial interaction.

In some situations, dealing with a single person is less difficult if they relax their expectations. For most of the week we had our hospitality set up moved from our green room to the scene shop because it was less trouble to grab water, coffee, cookies and fruit from the stage. Generally performers are less keen about getting their coffee next to a table saw.

When we talk about customer service, speak of treating every individual as if they are the most important person. But if this type of experience has reminded me of anything, it is that the standard of care rendered to people has to be anything but. People in groups often get a lot of what they need from their companions. Dealing with individuals sometimes thrusts the role of a companion upon you by default.

Part of the point I am trying to make isn’t so much about having a separate way of dealing with a single person at the box office versus a group that comes to buy their tickets as it is an attempt to create a metaphor about being mindful of the dynamic that group size dictates. Our audience had as different a relationship with the single performer as I did. It may seem self-evident in your mind that the experience would be different, but there are assumptions about what will happen that we automatically project on our experience based on past experience that simply are not valid. In such cases, operating as business as usual may yield disappointing results for audience, artist and staff.

Engage Your Art — Will It Be A Happy Marriage?

While I was in the Learning to Lead session at the APAP conference, Steven Tepper was discussing his new book Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation in America’s Cultural Life just next door. It was tough deciding which session to attend and I eventually stayed in Learning to Lead and bought the audio recording Tepper’s session.

There were a number of interesting insights from his book that Tepper shared. One of the things people are concerned about is that arts audiences are disappearing but according to Tepper, participation is dropping all over. There are declines in church attendance, voting, involvement in formal political processes and even major league baseball games.

But says Tepper, It’s not that like sports less, its that we like a little sports more….It may not be case that we like arts less we may actually like arts more.” He doesn’t expound, but I think he is referring to The Long Tail economic model which essentially deals with selling a lot of niche items at higher volumes. His implication, as I understood it, was that people will value a lot of small experiences over the larger, more formal ones in the future.

Something he pointed out was that there is a shift in where people are getting their arts experiences. They aren’t just getting it on the internet and TiVo, but also in places like churches which are bringing arts experiences to their constituents both within services and independently of them. He suggested that churches could be potential partners for arts organizations.

Tepper cited survey results that said high quality art wasn’t a prime motivator for attendance. Rather celebrating heritage, socializing and supporting their community bigger motivation than quality. Social connections have long been a strong factor in arts attendance and apparently remains so. This is one of the reasons why churches could be strong partners. Not only do people who attend church participate more often in other areas of life, but churches provide a social connection.

This may be more true now than ever before given that many churches now offer counseling and assistance with things like job placement, parenting and child care in addition to sponsoring social gatherings for demographic groups. The church that rents my theatre has niche social groups for every permutation of age, marital status (and desire to be married), employment/student status and gender.

Though it does sound like one of those jokes about ordering coffee in Starbucks when a pastor introduces someone as a member of the Thirtysomething, professional single women social group. Yet if the Long Tail situation is indeed developing, services focused to these type of divisions may be what people desire. (Despite the fact that you will either go insane or print up different labels for the same product trying to serve every possible group.)

There are signs that there is a growing interest with involvement in artistic creation. UCLA administers an annual survey to students about their aspirations. Over the last decade there has been a small but noticeable increase in the number of students with a “desire to create, write something original or be accomplished in a performing art.” Tepper acknowledges that what they create might not be worth experiencing. He notes that students are experiencing frustration. Colleges and universities are having a hard time responding since the classes addressing the myriad creative areas are only available to majors. Students are coming to school with creative hobbies but don’t have a formal way of advancing their skill/knowledge.

So perhaps the role that arts organizations can fill in the future is responding to this need to hone one’s creative skills that schools are not able to provide. In the best situation, arts organizations will be partnering with schools to provide the types of experiences students are looking for rather than competing or duplicating efforts.

I have talked about the Pro Am — professional amateur — trend in earlier entries. (Not surprisingly in relation to a piece Tepper wrote before.) People are investing a great deal of time in their interests these days and technology is making it easier for them to gain expertise. There was a time when this was not so and the learning curve for amateurs was so much greater.

It may not longer be the role of the arts organization to employ those who have acquired a high level of skill in their field to exhibit it to others, but rather to invite these Pro-Amateurs to become partners/participants/students in the creation of art. I have often wondered what the next phase for arts organizations is going to be. I don’t think the future would be too bad if this was the role arts organizations played. The scary part for existing arts organizations is figuring out what their organization is going to look like and making the transition.

**Apologies to regular readers for falling off my regular posting schedule. Engaging my constituents (look for posts next week) and problems logging in to my blog contributed to my delay**

New Metrics To Damn Ourselves With

I haven’t had a chance to read through the report WolfBrown put together for the Major University Presenters on Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance but I did just finish listening to the audio recording of the presentation on the work that Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak did at the Arts Presenters conference.

What was most interesting to me about the study they did was their ambition in collecting information about audience experiences. They randomly surveyed people during the period between the time they arrived and the start of the show about their readiness to receive the performance they were about to see and then asked the same people to take home a survey and return it within 24 hours.

I hope to address the study in more detail in another entry. I wanted to address the comments one of respondents on the session panel had about the study. Artist agent and APAP Board President Lisa Booth had mixed feeling about the report. She was happy that there was a measure of success being developed that didn’t evaluate an artist on the number of bodies he/she attracted to the venue but rather on impacts in other areas.

On the other hand, she worried that some presenters might use the report to justify serving only a small group rather than the larger community. Providing experiences of high intrinsic value for 10 people is anti-ethical to most arts organization’s purpose.

And while she was glad that there was a new metric of success being developed that wasn’t based in dollars or butts in seats, she was also concerned that in the eagerness to justify the value of the arts in some quantifiable way, the arts community was trying to measure what can not be measured.

This last bit was very interesting to me because Lisa Booth seemed to recognize the inevitable if these measures became widely used. If foundations and governments start basing their funding on the intrinsic value a performance has for a community, arts organizations will probably try to measure everything imaginable to show all the levels on which a performance meets funding agendas. Just as the arts aren’t well served by showing economic impact, they probably will be equally ill-advised to create numeric values for changes in things like self-actualization, captivation, social comfort level and questions raised.

As it was at least one person in the room at this convention of presenters, agents and artists had nagging doubts about the value of art in today’s society. One of the questions submitted to the moderators on an index card that was read but left unanswered was “What is the value of these impacts in a world with global warming and war?” The fact that the moderator choose to read the question as he announced time was up rather than ignoring it entirely is an acknowledgment that questions about our priorities as a society are ever present.

There is no short simple answer for the question but I offer this- After September 11, 2001 people were saying there would be no more comedy or laughter ever again. When I heard that I knew with 100% certainty that it was wrong and that even with the destruction of the Twin Towers hovering in our consciousness, recovery would come sooner than people expected. I had been through enough tragedy and grave problems in my life that I knew people couldn’t exist in with the absence of artistic expression in some form. My current concern isn’t that the arts will disappear. It is that I have no idea what media/channel/form it will best express itself in the future.

Simple Gestures, Big Results

Knowing that my customer service skills can be lacking, I try to keep my eyes open for practices that answer customer needs well. One of the cardinal rules for relations with anyone, be it your boss, relatives, friends or patrons is to try to anticipate the needs of the other person.

Last week I came across an instance of what to do and wanted to share it with the readers. It is a small act, but it can make a big difference.

I have been emailing back and forth among two other alumni members of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Emerging Leadership Institute about some activities we want new and alumni members to participate in as part of our attempt to enhance the value of attending the institute.

One person emailed the rest of us a draft letter addressed to the new and returning ELI members alerting them to conference sessions and social events where concerns members had would be addressed. The format was pretty simple with a listing of the event and the time. It looked fine and I replied to that effect mentioning that I would have to research one session a little more because the title made it look interesting.

The next email I received had a revision of the previous letter. This time each session listed had a full description of what the session was all about. What had impressed me was that she took a cue from my comment that I intended to research a session that sounded interesting to provide me the information herself. Obviously, she didn’t do it for me alone. If I was curious, others would be as well.

Actually, since I am praising her rather than criticizing, I don’t mind mentioning her by name- Laura Kendall, Assistant Director of Community Engagement and Learning at the Lied Center in Lincoln, NE. There, now maybe she will get a raise.

You would naturally expect someone with a title like hers to make that connection and act on it, but it is a rarer quality than you would think. It is easy to enter a mindset that the community you are engaging and educating is only your own and that you only need to do so within the context of programs planned in conjunction with performances.

And maybe she doesn’t pick up on the unspoken messages all the time either. However, I emailed her back last week praising her for recognizing that additional information would make a better letter. She said I made her day so I will bet she will be more conscious of these cues in the future regardless of how well she noticed them before.

Anticipating and answering needs people didn’t really know they had is what will help set an experience at an arts organization apart from other experiences. People are able to gain the information they want more and more easily these days. Global positioning directional units were one of the hottest selling items this Christmas season. But information sources like GPS units only provide what you ask for and not only is the information sometimes incorrect, it also lacks wisdom and discernment to advise well.

But this is only one example of good practices arts organizations should be embracing. Keeping alert for everyday occurrence that can adapted and applied to become your standard procedures is the real point of this entry. Often it isn’t that you come across a new practice as you encounter something that makes you question if you are doing it well enough.