Filling The Quiet Places

I was climbing a sea cliff this weekend when I noticed a lighthouse I had been looking for fairly close by. Even better, from my vantage, I noticed the trail that lead to the lighthouse as well. I descended and walked back to my car for water and sneakers (I know I am becoming more local because I am doing bizarre things like clambering up cliffs in sandals rather than “proper” shoes.)

As I was making my way across a field toward the trail, I had to walk over some loose chunks of basalt. Despite testing the stability of each rock, one tilted beneath me and I ended up scraping up my hand, knee and a good portion of my lower back. Undaunted, I pulled myself up, washed my wounds with my water bottle and continued on…until I saw a tour bus pull up and disgorge a horde of folks.

I have already established that I am rather anti-social so regular readers may not be surprised to read that human company stopped me where wounds dripping blood didn’t. It was more than that though.

We have all read or had experience with people with poor cell phone etiquette and that is annoying enough. But I have really come to believe of late that people are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts and feelings. I was over at the Kilauea volcano last Christmas and as my mother and I approached the awesome vista, a woman behind us pulled out her cell phone and related moment by moment to a friend.

Perhaps she was just being an idiot, but many incidents similar to that make me wonder if she and other people just don’t know how to process magnificent sights like that without the insulation of a television or computer screen. In order to cope with the swirling emotions they are experiencing, they need to distract themselves with technology.

There is a safety in movies and television. Even the roller coaster in an amusement park has all sorts of safety mechanisms. But you can walk right up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and there aren’t any safety rails (or at least there weren’t the last time I was there.) While it isn’t the mythical abyss staring back at you, it is pretty overwhelming and frightening to stand there with nothing but your own caution and restraint to keep you from falling in.

It makes me wonder if as many people have attention deficit disorder as seem to. It may be more the case that rather than deal with reality which brings creeping thoughts of economic, social, personal, spiritual, educational, etc., woes and concerns, people are seeking solace and distraction in phones, PDAs, computers, video games.

So what does this all mean to arts management? Why did I choose to categorize an entry that starts with a story about my bloody knee as Audience Relations rather than General Musings?

As I drove away from my hiking excursion, it occured to me that arts people trying to educate new and existing audiences about what they do not only have to instruct people about understanding their art form, they have to make them comfortable with the personal silence needed to process the experience.

The idea that you have to stop and think about a work probably seems self evident when you teach people what to look/listen for. But it may be a false assumption these days. In days of instant gratification, if you have taught someone to look at an artist’s use of light, he/she can deal with Rubens even if they had no previous exposure to Baroque art. However, if they come in contact with an artist who has no concern for use of light, the viewer, having no familiar point of reference may quickly pass by. Even if their teacher constantly used the phrase “what is the artist trying to do”, they may not stop to consider that question when faced with unfamiliar elements.

It may not be enough just to “teach a man to fish” anymore. Now you have to teach the person the critical thinking skills to recognize they are in a situation when the goal of getting fish from the water remains the same, but the fishing tool provided is not appropriate in this situation.

The bad news is, this probably will take a major shift in mindset and way of life rather than the intermittent interaction with the arts to achieve. (And that isn’t even acknowledging that this is even more to do with less funding available.) It has to be schools, arts people, Oprah and Dr. Phil and then some talking about it.

The good news is, recently groups have started to really advocate getting away from technology (but is it enough?) I have seen TV ads in the past week or so for the Take Me Fishing website and read an article about a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

These efforts obviously don’t address contemplation of the arts directly, but do advocate activities where people have to spend quiet time with their thoughts (lets hope the lake has poor cell phone reception) and critical problem solving skills (like alternative routes that avoid crossing a field of jagged basalt) that allow people to formulate alternative criteria with which to assess a painting.

Took Myself To The Orchestra

Drew McManus over at Adaptistration anointed May as “Take a Friend to the Orchestra Month” He has devoted many of his blog entries this month to following people’s experiences.

Since he listed a concert by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra as one to see, I thought I would try to take it in. I was coming down with a cold so I wasn’t sure if I was going to go so I didn’t try to get a friend to come along.

Since he provided the impetus, I will probably send my impressions along to him first before deciding to post any of them here. Also, I have gotten sicker since I attended and don’t have the stamina to write much today.

However, Drew took Jerry, brother of WNYC host John Schaefer, to Carniege Hall to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Jerry had never been to the symphony before and today they met with John to discuss the experience on air. Check it out here. There are a lot of great observations made by Drew and Jerry about the experience and about the larger topic of classical music attendance. (And John congratulated Drew on getting Jerry into the symphony where his 40 years of effort have failed.)

Check the radio show out and the entries that fall under the Take a Friend.. topic on Drew’s blog.

Rousing Passion

There is a really great speech that Neill Archer Roan made to the American Symphony Orchestra League about dealing with controversy.

The point of contention was a decision by the Oregon Bach Festival to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion in a season themed “War, Reconciliation and Peace.” A local paper asked “How can reconciliation and peace be represented by a musical work whose text has been an incitement to genocide?”

The problem, according to Neill, was that Passion Plays were performed in Nazi Germany to incite anger against Jews and even before that, the worst pogroms always coincided with Easter. (The time during which the plays were historically performed.)

Even worse, the local temple was vandalized by skinheads who shot up the place with guns and spray painted hate filled slogans not nine months before the performance of the piece.

To compound things, the temple’s rabbi was on the Bach Festival’s audience development steering committee. In addition to the Passion piece, they had wanted to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II by exploring the works of Jewish artists who had been interred in concentration camps. The rabbi’s guidance about how to handle it with sensitivity was fairly key.

As people learned more about the controversy surrounding the Bach piece, the rabbi and Neill had long conversations about it. The rabbi eventually removed his involvement with the festival because of their resolution to perform it.

What Neill says next really caught my attention because I think it something every arts person embroiled in controversy needs to remember (emphasis is mine):

Any person or organization whose artistic work engages in raising issues which engross our minds, hearts, and polity must expect-even bless-the exercise of conscience, even when that exercise takes the form of withholding support, fierce and active opposition, or even condemnation. As artistic organizations, we may own the work, but we do not own the issues. We may hold the match, but nobody holds a conflagration. We should not be surprised that someone we view as principled enough to be invited to serve on a Board or Steering Committee might also be principled enough to withhold the imprimatur of their good name in affairs that they cannot, in good conscience, support.

What the Festival decided to do though was engage the community in a discussion/debate about the work, “about the dynamics and origins of bigotry, even when that bigotry seemed to spring from the dominant culture’s holiest of stories.”

“By opening up the matter to the community at large and inviting their reflection on the matter, a situation that could have seriously damaged our organization wound up strengthening it. During these times, when people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with institutions, there is no better lesson from my experience that I can offer you today than to trust your public if you want them to trust” you

Much to Neill’s surprise, the local Christian clergy were very open about admitting the anti-Semitic history of their faith and lent immeasurable support to the discussion effort. This support was sorely needed because everyone, including Festival donors, long time patrons and board members were angry, frustrated and confused by the controversy. It was only through continued discussion that people finally began to understand the entire situation. In Neill’s mind, short efficient statements are too abrupt and alienating to be effective solutions in a controversy.

The churches got on board and condemned anti-Semitism from the pulpit the Sunday before the piece was performed and again the night before at a Reconciliation.

The night of the performance a rabbi and his wife handed out flyers asking people to stand and turn their backs on offensive passages. People stayed away and donors withdrew their support.

Says Neill:

Personally, I felt buoyed. In a society where the arts are often thought of as the “toy department of life,” at least on that evening we were no longer on the periphery of community life. We performed the St. John Passion, but in a new context. A deep and principled discussion of meaning, history, and accountability had occurred. We had not only talked about reconciliation, but lived its possibilities.

I am sure the experience was nerve wracking at the time and not something one would wish on oneself ever. I think it is a mark of a good artist though to not only recognize when one is in the presence of great art, but to also acknowledge that it has provided an opportunity for growth and transformation. (Granted, those of us who have gone through puberty can attest that growth and transformation is more exciting in the abstract than in reality.)

Emergency Planning

I had a meeting today with all the other theatre managers in the University of Hawaii system about emergency procedures. It was very informative in many respects.

I discovered I was in better shape than I thought because the Director of Administrative Services had requested I make up emergency procedures about 9 months ago. Other theatres didn’t have as strong a plan as I did and didn’t make fire exit announcements at the beginning of each show. (It isn’t a law in Hawaii as it is in places like NY. Some people make announcements directing people to the restrooms and were a little embarrassed to realize they didn’t think about fire exits.)

On the other hand some of the other theatres had stronger usher training programs than I currently do so there was a lot everyone could learn from the session.

While the organization that accredits community colleges doesn’t accredit entire systems, one thing they noted in their last report was that there is no top down guidance from the university on important policy areas. While they didn’t specifically mention safety, the meeting we had today was an attempt to standardize minimum general plans each theatre in the system should have. (Evacuation plan specifying who makes announcement, from where is it made, how often to test emergency lights, etc.)

It was very interesting to learn that the different campuses have vastly different emergency response personnel. The security people on the main campus have portable defibrillators in the golf carts (of course, they are a residential campus too), the guys at my campus are state employees with para-military ranks like police officers. The security folks on the other side of the island and a neighboring island are contracted from an outside security company and rotate through so often, they don’t inspire much confidence.

There was also a huge difference in the process people had to go through to get first aid kits. Some had to buy them outright from their own accounts, others got in trouble if they bought them on their own.

There was debate over whether to have emergency announcements played on a recording or done by a person on stage. The recorded announcement allows you to attend to the actual emergency. However having a person on stage 1-is a visual signal that an announcement is going to be made whereas a recorded announcement might get lost in the chatter of speculations about why the show stopped and 2- is more comforting and assuring than an announcement. (After all a certain suspicion might arise that you have already left the building after pushing play on the CD player if you aren’t on stage.)

One of the biggest lessons that came out of the session was that any emergency plan should specify exactly who is the top person in charge. While key people might supervise large segements of an emergency plan, there should be one overall person who makes final decisions. And everyone in the building should know who that person is.

An attendee at the conference told the story about a promoter who was standing backstage before the show. The police came in and asked who was in charge. He said he was. The police informed him about a possible situation and told him he had to make a decision. Instead of speaking with the event manager for the facility which he was presenting the show in, he went out on stage and made a very alarming announcement to the audience. The house crew having been well trained, immediately acted to open evacuation routes so that the audience did not injure themselves in the abrupt departure.

Had the facilities management been informed at all, they would have been able to better assess if the situation was an actual threat to the audience or if they would have been safer staying in their seats.

A couple interesting stats and facts to present in closing.

1-The chances of someone becoming injured in an emergency evacuation is actually rather high. Be sure you correctly assess a threat to the audience and have a very comforting presentation for them if you are going to ask them to stay put. This is especially true in the case of a power outage. Unless there is an electrical fire that caused it, it is better to keep the audience in place and then evacuate them in a very controlled manner if it becomes clear power will not be restored.

2- The National Fire Safety Protection Association guidelines for evacuations is 1 person per every 250 guests. So if you have a 750 seat theatre, if you need to have at least 3 ushers helping people leave. (Though check with your municipality, some places have adopted other fire codes that may be different.)