Converting the Faithful?

Way back in my second entry I pointed out that I had a letter posted on’s letter section and in the Artful Manager blog. One of my suggestions was that arts audiences and church audiences share some commonalities–faithfully joining a communal activity on a regular basis being one.

Well, I actually have a church doing services in my theatre which you would think would combine the best of both worlds. I have a large group of people coming to my theatre, moving my display about our 30th anniversary and staring at our large set filled with water during their services. (Yes, they wanted to do baptisms, but we wouldn’t let them.)

Thus far when we ask people how they heard about the show, no one has mentioned that they attend services there. Somewhat disappointing, but we still have a lot of time to seduce them.

One thing they have been doing is providing us with volunteers to clean up our backstage and usher during the shows. They have been really dependable and efficient. One thing that is sort of disquieting to me though is that many of them are doing it as part of their service to the church and not because they enjoy live events.

I love having the resource of volunteers, but I guess as a person who has his own “religious” experience in the arts, I would really like to have people coming who are doing it because they enjoy an arts experience. I don’t want to convert them into subscribers or arts lovers. This is certainly an opportunity to expose people to the arts who never thought of it as an experience to be included in their lives and maybe they will ultimately benefit from it.

It is just a strange experience for me telling the church volunteer coordinator that I appreciate the help and don’t want to put anyone out so she should only include people who have a genuine interest in participating. She talks about how volunteering is important for rounding out their spiritual lives. The people who do help out may very well be curious and interested in the arts, but that doesn’t seem to be an important criteria in their selection when I talk to the volunteer coordinator.

On the other hand, they aren’t compelled into service either. Apparently, people aren’t allowed to commit themselves to volunteering unless their personal lives are in shape (and there is a support network that helps them get to that point.) I am sort of envious that they have such an organized volunteer network.

That is another problem for me. I really want to build a corps of volunteers so I don’t have to ask the church for help. Since the church has the contact information for their volunteers and I don’t, this makes it hard for me to solicit their services on my own behalf. I don’t aim to poach volunteers, but it would be great if some were interested in the arts because it would increase the likelihood they would approach me independently of their church association to volunteer.

Guess I am going to have to do it the old fashion way and build the volunteer group one person at a time.

Built to Fail?

Some real interesting reading over at Artful Manager these days. I am especially interested in the feedback he is getting regarding his statement that the arts are overbuilt.

Today’s entry has comments from one of his readers about how community arts organizations might be feeling pressure to professionalize their operations.

“More generally, it seems to me, anecdotally, that our industry has pushed professionalism (by which I mean professionally structured non-profit orgs) as an indicator of quality and sustainability, leading amateur (some community theatres for example) organizations to professionalize without need, causing undo strain on the organizations, and diverting and spreading thin available arts and culture funding that feels compelled to support professional level organizations. ”

In the past I have mentioned that all arts organizations don’t have a god given right to exist, nor should they automatically expect to be funded. (Which admittedly is hard to accept when you are going through hours of grant writing.) I never really thought about the fact that these folks might be affected by subtle pressure to professionalize.

There are “rewards” as it were, for professionalizing an operation. You can get larger grants and donations (and the burden of tracking and reporting), you get the prestige of being recognized as professional, including willingness of newspapers to cover your events (though that happens with less frequency these days). Of course, there are increased expectations as the writer mentions that put a great deal of pressure on the organization.

The thing is, you can be really successful doing amateur work. Groups rent out my theatre all the time and present absolutely awful shows. But much to my chagrin, they have larger audiences than my regular season shows do because of word of mouth to friends and family. People don’t see great theatre, but they leave with a sense of joy having seen a loved one.

The group just has to be organized enough to organize a show, get themselves to the theatre and open the show on time, not oversell the house and then take their belongings with them when they leave. As long as they pay me, they have no further worries. I have to handle the water and power, maintain instruments, gather supplies, clean the theatre, worry about budgets, bugs, equipment failure. We supply the technical knowledge for running a show and processing an audience.

The theatre is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and we have had 4-5 groups who have been doing annual events like this at the theatre for at least 25 of those years.

The problem might be as alluded to in The Cluetrain Manifesto that Artful Manager listed earlier last week–businesses take themselves too seriously. People who started out doing art to have fun suddenly decide they need to organize and get some respect for the work they do.

This, of course, is bad for everyone involved because audiences don’t need to have their introduction to an art form be at the hands of really awful performers looking for strangers to repeat the sentiments of friends and family that they have talent. If you admit you are not that good but have fun doing it, that is one thing, but if you believe that everyone shares your mother’s opinion about how talented you are and should fund you, that is another.

Now, to be fair, the professionals in a given performance field suffer the same malady. If you have read my blog on a regular basis, you will see that much is true. They can have a tendency to get too serious and believe that everyone ought to pay a premium for what they are offering because it is good for them.

Therefore, it is difficult for me to say this with any absolute certainty, but…running arts organizations by and large should be left to the professionals. If anyone should be making a mess of the arts, it should be people who have the resources and training to do it full time. Botching things up is not an appropriate activity for people who can only devote themselves to it part time.

But seriously, as many poor decisions are made by arts administrators, they are still better equip in many instances to do thing in a quality manner. When they endeavor to do something with the patina of professionalism, they have the experience and knowledge to anticipate the implications of decisions in ways amateurs don’t.

The comparison has been made to death, I know, but in many ways arts and sports are similar in this respect. People go to a Little League or soccer game with their kids and forget its all about the fun and socializing, drinking lemonade and enjoying the weather. There is such an expectation that their kids perform like professional players and that the volunteer referees be infallible, that the game get forced into pretending to be something it can never become.

This isn’t completely analogous of course. There is a better chance of a theatre evolving into a successful professional house than there is of a kid becoming a professional athlete. (Freddy Adu notwithstanding) In many cases, it is probably better to just let kids be kids and amateur arts organizations just have fun doing what they founded to do.

Secure those Tickets

Well I have been really busy the last couple days and have met with some limited success in my objectives. One of my projects for the last few months has been to get secure online for patrons that didn’t require paying a large service fee for the luxury like Ticketmaster charges. Despite being a part of a university, the many IT offices I contacted all said they couldn’t support my modest needs.

I have been exploring many options from outside vendors. Many of them were dead ends and those that weren’t, were rather expensive solutions. Finally I found a local provider that had a store front as part of their offerings and the monthly fee was really quite reasonable.

Of course, it was too good to be true. The storefront they had was not really customizable at all. I would have had to list all my shows with no way to differentiate between them or link directly to specific listings. And what was worse, I couldn’t have 2 prices for the same product, in this case a show.

So, I upgraded to the next package which was essentially double the price, but did allow a bit more control. The solution was equally disappointing though. I still couldn’t have two prices for the same product, even if I had separate sizes or colors (two aspects I could customize with my own terms)

I worked around this by having separate catalogs, each with 2 “products” for each event–in this case, adult and student tickets. This works a little better, but is still unwieldly since people have to add adult tickets and then click the back button to add student tickets.

Another good thing is that I can link directly to the event in my online store from my website so patrons only have to deal with navigating the show they are interested in.

But as I said, the utility is limited. I can’t redirect people back to my webpage or to my thank you page. I can’t change font sizes so the titles of the shows are really tiny and in the left hand corner. If anyone has a suggestion for a provider with good storefront packages or good software I might get my provider to load on my account for me, I would love to hear about it.

The interface was unwieldy and frustrating to use properly so the whole process was extremely time consuming.

However, I definitely think this is something people want. Even without really promoting the fact we offer this service to our audience base, we have already started doing a fair bit of business averaging about 20-30 ticket sales a day the last three business days.

If you are interested in seeing how I set it up, you can go to here

Believe me, it is incredibly rough and basic. If I wasn’t desperate to offer the service, I was really tempted to keep looking. Obviously, I am not satisfied and will continue to seek alternatives, even given the fact I may only need the service for less than a year while I wait for the university to integrate me in their centralized ticketing.

Front of House

One area I have been involved in either directly running or indirectly supervising nearly everwhere I have worked is the front of house. Depending on where you are, this phrase can encompass both the box office and house management or just house management. Today I wanted to focus just on house management.

Because box office handles money, the area is usually given the attention it is due. In the course of attending performances though it has seemed that the whole concept of house management is limited to instructing people to smile, hand out programs and point to the restrooms. This may be okay for the spring high school musical which only happens once a year, but anyone doing performances on a regular basis owes it to their audience to have formal processes in place.

Some theatres I have worked at have required the front of house staff to be certified in CPR and First Aid. I believe in certain categories of theatres in New York City it is required by law. This is one of the best indicators of how important the training of a house staff can be. If there is an emergency, they are in a position of being the first representatives of the organization on the scene. How they act and what they are able to do reflects most on the institution.

Even if it is not feasible to have all your ushers trained in CPR, there should be a procedure established to deal with emergencies. If there is problem who should be called? This doesn’t mean just dialing 911, but if you are on a college campus do the campus police need to be called, do you call the managing director, etc? Where is the phone that is used? Is it accessible? In some theatres the box office is closed up by the second act. If that is where the phone is and no one has been given a key, lives could be in danger. How do you communicate with the stage manager and performers that the show needs to halt to allow paramedics to enter in the next 3 minutes?

If there is a fire who makes an announcement? What doors are opened and where are ushers stationed to direct people outside? Are there enough flashlights on hand to address this situation?

If the power goes out who goes on stage with a flashlight to make an announcement while someone else calls the power company to determine how long the delay might be. What do you tell people about the refund policy if the show can’t go on?

In the course of my career I have been fairly lucky and had no fires, a couple heart attacks/strokes, a number of trip/falls and a few power outages. In all cases I was glad that I knew the procedure of handling and reporting these problems.

House manager and usher training is, of course, not all about emergencies, but the more mundane task of good audience relations. Knowing who to call to adjust the heat or air conditioning isn’t as crucial as calling 911 but it is important to the audience. The same is true of knowing what house seats are available to alleviate ticketing problems.

Their role of the front of house staff starts before the audience even arrives. Among the things they should be doing before the theatre opens is checking the cleanliness of the facility.

Even if you have a cleaning crew, it is useful to have ushers checking the lobby, restrooms and seating area for garbage that might have been dropped since the cleaning people were there. Burned out light bulbs should be noted, cigarette receptacles checked, trash emptied and bags replaced, front stoop swept, banners and signs fixed so they hang straight, etc.

It is very important that the front of house staff has access to cleaning supplies. It may be a revolting job, but often they are the ones called upon to wield a plunger in a toilet and a mop to clean up toilet overflow or vomit. Unfortunately, I have been faced with these types of emergencies far more often than heart attacks and power outages. I mastered the manuever of holding a can of air freshener at my thigh and spritzing as I passed through a crowded lobby by necessity.

Once the audience arrives ushers should be attentive to patrons and not focussed on talking to each other. Those who look lost or confused should be approached and aided. In many cases there isn’t enough seating in the lobby and folding chairs need to be brought out for people with mobility difficulties while they await the opening of the theatre.

Once the theatre does open ushers need to be pleasant, attentive and know how to accurately direct people to their seats. There should be a sufficient number of ushers stationed throughout the theatre to aid patrons. (I always found a minimum of 2 ushers per door with and additional 1 per every 100 seats in the theatre to be a pretty good rule of thumb. It provides a little flexibility if some people don’t show up.)

Once the show does start, ushers with flashlight should be strategically placed around the theatre and near the doors to aid in the arrival/departure of those needing to use the restrooms. This is one of the most difficult things I have tried to implement because inevitably the usher becomes involved in watching the show even if it is the 80th time they have seen it and miss the fact that someone is stumbling up the aisle and crashing out the doors.

There should also be a sufficient number of ushers in the lobby to help with late seating after the show starts. Before the appropriate interval for seating arrives, they should instruct the patrons about what is going to happen when they enter the theatre. I don’t know how many times I have been watching a show when the usher started instructing people after they entered the dark, quiet room.

If there is a particularly large number of people to seat, they should be lined up in reverse seating order (People for row M followed by those for J, G, E, B, A) so that the people can be “dropped off” as the group makes their way forward. Again, seems logical, but I have seldom seen it instituted unless I suggested it. I think it is because the ushers themselves share a perception that the job they are doing doesn’t take any thought.

After late seating has been taken care of, ushers in the lobby should be watching for people returning from the restroom so they can get the door for them. Not only is it a sign of good service and attention, but it prevents the door from making too much noise as it closes.

Intermission and the end of the show people are attentive, open and close the doors, etc and then help clean up at the end of the night.

One of the most important tools in Front of House Management is the end of performance report. Copies should be distributed to the administration and maintenance. Often stage management receives a copy as well. This is the way incidents are recorded and the status of the show is communicated to people who weren’t present. Often it lists what ushers didn’t show up, problems with the physical plant that need to be addressed, time the show and intermission started and ended, audience complaints, medical emergencies, if actors are wandering the lobby during the show, if there are a large number of people consistently arriving late, etc.

All this information helps people make decisions about how general operations and performances need to be run. Does the theatre need to recruit more ushers and train them better? Should the thermostat be moved away from an exterior door? Should alternate directions be provided so that people can avoid traffic congestion?

The front of house area is integral to the success of a performance venue because the response to emergencies and audience concerns rests so heavily upon this area. Providing at least key staff members with the training and information they need to address these concerns is essentially a necessity.