Seeing Your Stories In The Audience

If you want to see a good example of a show that is answering people’s need to see themselves and their stories on stage, check out Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The show is on Netflix, but you can catch episodes on YouTube as well.

Actually, the best examples aren’t the show episodes but the Deep Cut videos. The show itself is scripted and addresses social, economic and political issues with comedy–attempting to communicate serious issues without feeling preachy.

The Deep Cuts are separate videos of conversations Minhaj has with the audience. At first it seemed they were using them to keep the show in people’s minds when there weren’t any new episodes being released. Now the Deep Cuts seem to be a feature of their own. Where they used to be only around 5 minutes long, they now rival the length of the regular episodes.

What I had noticed in some of the earliest episodes of the show was that there seemed to be a very racially mixed group of people in the front row of the audience. The fact I noticed this made me realize just how homogeneous live studio audiences tend to appear on TV. At first I was thinking he was making an effort to seat diverse faces in the front rows, but once I started seeing the Deep Cut episodes where the camera is turned toward the whole audience rather than just catching the first couple rows, I realized there was no difference between the first row and any other row.  (So if there was anyone who said there aren’t any Asians in NYC interested in seeing a show dealing with topical issues, Minhaj proves them wrong.)

The stuff the audience asks Minhaj runs the gamut from asking him to choose between two silly options to making fun of his enthusiastic hand gesturing to questions about pop culture and his relationship with his parents. Many of the questions are derived from his family background as Muslim immigrants from India, which again has dealt with everything from parental expectations and Bollywood references to more serious issues associated with that identity.

Or rather, the questions are derived from a SHARED experience and background. Minhaj often turns the question back on the person and gets their answer. It is as much seeing your stories in the audience as it is on stage.

In a recent Deep Cut episode, he discussed being on Ellen DeGeneres Show and correcting Ellen when she mispronounced Hasan. He said he saw his mother cringe in the audience and decided to address it. As a comedian, he did it in a light-hearted way, but he said his father was angry with him on the drive home. Minhaj observes that his father’s generation had to tolerate the indignity of having their names mispronounced in order to survive and make a place for their kids, but that he felt like it was his generation’s responsibility to hold people to make the effort to use their real names rather than convenient shorthand.

I think it is conversations and stories like that which help establish the sense of trust audiences need to feel assured that their faces and stories will be depicted with sincerity and accuracy.

Now how that translates into something arts organizations can bring to their homes, I don’t know. It is definitely different for every community. In some places it may be facilitated by humor, in other places, food.

Making a pitch to a local community to come see a comedian who will talk about the economic forces that make retirement increasingly impossible, but will also chat with the audience about his favorite hip hop artist and sneakers may garner no interest even though that describes an episode of Patriot Act. Not everyone can make the format work the same way and Minhaj put thousands of hours of sweat into his career before getting his show.

It is almost guaranteed that mistakes will be made.  Readers may recall my post about Mixed Blood Theater and the fits and false starts they experienced while trying to develop a meaningful program with the Somali community in their neighborhood.


Arts Marketing Is About Shared Interests, Not Demographics

Back in October Sara Leonard made a blog post for Americans for the Arts about marketing in the context of the “false-consensus effect,” the idea that your personal opinions, beliefs and interests are more widely shared than they actually are. She says this gets in the way of effectively promoting an experience to others

It makes sense; it’s such a logical starting point! We go to market an event and think to ourselves, “What do I think is cool about this?” or “Why would I want to go?” Or maybe we’re repeating what the artist themselves thinks is the key source of attraction to a given event, believing that the artist must know what’s good about their own work. But here’s the problem: we—you, me, artists—are NOT our average audience members…. Our job, as arts marketers, is to serve our current and prospective audiences a picture that connects with their interests and values in a package that evokes an experience they want to have. And to do that, we need to cast our imaginations beyond the limitations of our own perspectives and experiences, get to know what makes our people tick, and to imagine the other complexly and with respect.

She says the best approach is to employ three  W questions- Who? Where? Why do they care? But in addition to using these questions to segment the universe of potential audiences in order to properly target them, she suggests applying them in slightly different ways with those whom we already know versus those we don’t know yet. The latter group being people who rarely, if ever, participate in events we sponsor. (Though I suppose it could equally apply to people who might attend frequently with whom we have a pretty tenuous relationship in terms of understanding their motivations.)

What I appreciated about Sara’s perspective on this was that she reversed the order of her 3W questions when it came to people we don’t know yet. She asks “Why do they already care”   about some part of what is being offered first. From there she goes on to identify Who those people are and where connections with them might be made.

Perhaps the most salient point she exhorts readers to keep in mind came toward the end (my emphasis):

Your “who” groups should not be based solely on demographics. There is nothing about our demographic characteristics alone that explains WHY we spend our time and money the way we do, so let’s imagine and create connections based on shared interests and values first. Then, look around the room and see what demographic groups are missing. (Hint: That’s a “who” for next time…)


What About “Make Sure You Draw All Your Work” On The Test?

Hey all. Dan Pink linked to a round up of education research that came out in 2019. There were studies on how good teachers were better than awards when it came to raising attendance rates; the benefits of sleep on learning; gender differences in math ability are social construct; black students get fewer warnings before heading to the principal’s office, and many others.

As you might expect, among the “many others” were studies on the benefits of arts:

As arts programs continue to face the budget ax, a handful of new studies suggest that’s a grave mistake. The arts provide cognitive, academic, behavioral, and social benefits that go far beyond simply learning how to play music or perform scenes in a play.

In a major new study from Rice University involving 10,000 students in third through eighth grades, researchers determined that expanding a school’s arts programs improved writing scores, increased the students’ compassion for others, and reduced disciplinary infractions. The benefits of such programs may be especially pronounced for students who come from low-income families, according to a 10-year study of 30,000 students released in 2019.

Unexpectedly, another recent study found that artistic commitment—think of a budding violinist or passionate young thespian—can boost executive function skills like focus and working memory, linking the arts to a set of overlooked skills that are highly correlated to success in both academics and life.

The one that drew my attention most was a study that found while doodling distracted from learning, intentional drawing reinforced learning and memory better than reading and note taking.  The way I read it, this approach may be the easiest way to integrate creative expression and the arts into any subject AND improve test scores.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers compared two methods of note-taking—writing words by hand versus drawing concepts—and found drawing to be “an effective and reliable encoding strategy, far superior to writing.” The researchers found that when the undergraduates visually represented science concepts like isotope and spore, their recall was nearly twice as good as when they wrote down definitions supplied by the lecturer.

Importantly, the benefits of drawing were not dependent on the students’ level of artistic talent, suggesting that this strategy may work for all students, not just ones who are able to draw well.


Why is drawing such a powerful memory tool? The researchers explain that it “requires elaboration on the meaning of the term and translating the definition to a new form (a picture).” Unlike listening to a lecture or viewing an image—activities in which students passively absorb information—drawing is active. It forces students to grapple with what they’re learning and reconstruct it in a way that makes sense to them.

It made sense to me that drawing was beneficial because it forces one to take the information they are receiving, process it and then execute it into a meaningful depiction. Reading and writing down lecture notes don’t require that you be able to process the concept, only that you recognize and understand the individual words. If you have studied a foreign language you may have had the experience where you can pronounce the words flawlessly and know what each word means separately, but can’t translate the meaning of an entire sentence accurately.

The article discusses other reinforcing actions in of the increased number of steps and synaptic connections which are required to execute a drawing which helps to solidify concepts in memory, but that is how is how I conceptualize I read.

If you are interested in putting this into practice either for your own note taking or to assist students, there are suggestions of implementation – student created learning aids, interactive notebooks, data visualization (which apparently can be applied to literature); book/comic book making; and one-pagers where students visually show the teacher their understanding of the concept.

No Creativity Here, We Are Serious About Education

I recently saw an article on Arts Professional UK reporting that the governments of England and Wales would be opting out of the new creative thinking assessment section of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international standardized test administered to 15 year olds. (The United States also participates, but I haven’t been able to discover their stand on the new test module.)

I had some mixed feelings about this news. Students will continue to take the test in math, science and reading,  so it raises my hackles a little that they will still be testing those subjects and eschewing creativity. According to one commenters, there is a fear that measuring creativity would indicate you aren’t serious about education.

Professor Bill Lucas, Co-chair of the PISA 2021 Test of Creative Thinking….some people fear opting into the creative thinking assessment would give “a signal that you don’t value standards in English, maths and science as much, because you are somehow potentially aligning yourself with a view of the purpose of education that is beyond the basics of the core subjects.

Thinking the purpose of education is beyond that of reading, math and science?! The horror! Satisfying a voracious curiosity is so outdated.

The creativity test has been designed to (my emphasis),

…measure and reflect “the nature of real world and everyday creative thinking”. …

…will provide policymakers with valid, reliable and actionable measurement tools that will help them to make evidence-based decisions. The results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education,” the assessor says.

“Creative thinking is thus more than simply coming up with random ideas. It is a tangible competence, grounded in knowledge and practice, that supports individuals in achieving better outcomes, oftentimes in constrained and challenging environments.”

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I am a proponent of anything that emphasizes the concept creativity is a process requiring effort, reflection, and trial and error rather than a magical ability granted or retracted at the caprice of the gods.

On the other hand, if you have read this blog for any length of time, you also know that I discuss the fact that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean the result you get is meaningful.

One of the things countries do with this test is compare themselves with other countries. As I am reading about the test design, there is discussion of how cultural norms and expectations affect creative thinking. Even assuming the test prompts are appropriate to the culture of the country in which the test is administered, I would expect the way different cultures view creative expression would impact the results in ways that couldn’t be compared like math and science competencies could.

For that matter, there may not be a firm basis of comparison in the same country between the 15 year olds that took the test one year and those that took the test when it was administered three years prior.

Is there really an objective, comparative measure for creativity when students are given one hour to:

…engage in open and imaginative writing (with constraints limiting the length of written text that human raters will need to evaluate); generate ideas for various written formats by considering different stimuli, such as cartoons without captions or fantasy illustrations; and make an original improvement to someone else’s written work (as provided in the task stimuli).


…engage in open problem-solving tasks with a social focus, either individually or in simulated collaborative scenarios; generate ideas for solutions to social problems, based on a given scenario; and suggest original improvements to problem solutions (as provided in the task stimuli).

There is also a visual expression section with tasks similar to the written expression section described above and a scientific problem solving section with tasks similar to the social problem solving described.

As a way to give the individual something to reflect upon in regard to their own skills and providing a bit of an imprimatur to creative expression, these tests could be useful.

As a thing schools and countries should fret over as something with real relevance and providing indications of future success, it doesn’t really have any real meaning. (Though if they fear appearing too frivolous about education, there might even be a few countries who will be ashamed if their students attain too high a result.)

These tests just reflect what a cohort of 15 year olds can do in an hour on a certain day.  Whatever that means in terms of math, science and reading, it means even less when it comes to subjective judgments about how creative someone was in generating captions for cartoons or how original their suggested solution to a problem might be.

I didn’t realize until I started searching for links to other PISA related stories that the result of the last test were actually released today (The Arts Professional UK article came out last week).

The headline on a New York Times piece is “It Just Isn’t Working: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts. – An international exam shows that American 15-year-olds are stagnant in reading and math even though the country has spent billions to close gaps with the rest of the world.”

Part of you might be thinking the test scores wouldn’t be as bad if schools would actually introduce the role of creative thinking and problem solving into the education process.  That is likely true. But should creative capacity be measured by tests? Do you want fretful headlines about American kids doing worse in creative measures than 65% of the world?  It would be a clear indicator that people were paying attention and invested in creativity, but there are lot more constructive indicators of those things available.


NB: As a perfect illustration of how you can’t be creative within a strict time period: The moment I hit publish on this post, I immediately realized I should have titled it “No Creativity, We’re British,” as a take off on the play, No Sex Please, We’re British — something that would have qualified as an original improvement on someone else’s written work noted as a measure in the creativity test. (Granted, you might be hard pressed to judge it an improvement)

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