Substitution Blues

Ken Davenport posted some interesting information about the impact of absenteeism in Broadway shows on Producer’s Perspective. He was curious to learn if the need to have an understudy stand in was having an impact on audiences so he commissioned someone to study the question.

The impetus for this was the increasing rate of absenteeism in Broadway shows, particularly West Side Story. I had read the NY Post article Ken links to back in August and I couldn’t believe there was such a high rate of absences given that there are no lack of performers who are just as talented waiting to step on to the Broadway stage. Cameron Mackintosh did clean house on Les Miserables when he felt the quality was flagging so it seemed pretty risky for actors to appear to be slacking off. In retrospect, I suppose there is always the teensy little chance that the Post sensationalized the problem beyond the reality.

While some respondents to the survey liked the idea of an understudy having a chance to surpass the star, absenteeism was generally seen in a negative light. The perception was that it is becoming more prevalent and that the quality is not the same. Some respondents felt that they had to apologize to the guests they asked along or advise their friends not to attend the show. On the whole, people said they are becoming more cautious about their ticket purchases.

Davenport suggests the Actors Union and Producers get together to explore the problem. It should be noted that his survey results said people thought there was more absenteeism, but there was no study done on the question of whether there actually is more absenteeism over all. Though as a practical matter, the truth has little bearing if audiences have decided the problem is widespread and are acting accordingly. As Davenport suggests, better training of understudies may begin to reverse the perception that understudies are offering a vastly inferior product.

One of the commenters on the entry suggests that the understudy notice in the program book may have a psychological effect prejudicing a person against the show before the curtain rises. (Though I have attended a show where there was a small flurry of the notices falling out when I opened the Playbill. That certainly didn’t help my confidence.) Of course, eliminating proper notice probably runs afoul New York’s fraud laws.

While reading the entry, I recalled Holly Mulcahy’s September column on The Partial Observer about substitutions in orchestra programs. I wondered if the practice of changing up a concert offering was undermining confidence in orchestras as much as changes in casts are in Broadway shows. And has anyone ever done a study on that?

A Folding Table, A Jug of Water and Thou Sweating In The Parking Lot

I am reading a book about customer service right now. My intention is to report some observations on the text as a whole at some point. However, I saw an illustration of one of the points made in an early chapter today. The book had noted the veracity of “time flies when you are having fun” pointing out that a well designed wait that is 30 minutes long can actually seem shorter than a poorly designed wait that is only a third as long. Because human perception is involved, you can ruin a relationship with a customer in the latter situation even though you significantly reduced their wait time.

Our campus is in a situation with many strikes against it. Budgets have been cut so staffing is down but enrollment is up adding an additional 1500 student to our commuter campus. Alas, the heretofore un(der) used overflow parking is now inaccessible due to long delayed construction projects.

There wasn’t much to be done about the parking unfortunately, but someone got organized this year and had information tables distributed about the campus with all sorts of hand outs and big coolers of water. There were also large color campus maps that someone slapped up on the sides of buildings so people didn’t have to seek out kiosks to figure out where they were.

I looked around wondering why no one had thought to do this before. People had always volunteered to serve an hour or so on the welcome committee but it was never this organized or welcoming. People stood around smiling, answering questions and engaging people who looked lost. Now there is a table identifiable as a source of information from a distance that is stocked with information—and most importantly after trekking in from that parking space in the hinterlands you stalked for 30 minutes–water to drink.

While I walked around comparing what I was seeing to previous years, I realized that tweaking your customer service up a level or two doesn’t just help your relationship with those you serve. It also sends a message to other employees about the commitment of the organization. Memos about improving service are useful and identify areas for improvement. In this case, there were no memos that went out about how things were going to be done better—it was just done.

I am obviously someone whose business it is to think about improving customer interactions so I notice such things. But I have to believe that others noticed the improvement, how it fit in the context of other recent changes and what it all says about the direction of the organization.

I also had some insight into the issue of providing volunteers with opportunities to feel they are doing important work. I have never really had much desire to volunteer for welcoming slots before. Today when I witnessed the increased effort at hospitality, I had a desire to participate next time around. (Just have to remember not to schedule sending the brochure to the printer, interviewing a ticket office clerk and starting internet sales on this day next time.) In previous years, my impression of the job was that it provided a pleasant first impression of the institution and directions to buildings. With the addition of tables, maps and water jugs, suddenly it seems like an important contribution to relieving anxious new arrivals.

We are planning a volunteer luncheon/training in a few weeks so perhaps I am in a receptive mindset on the subject. We have been thinking about how to design the volunteering experience so people have a greater feeling of doing something of value. We have been discussing increasing volunteers’ scope of responsibility and authority. I believe we also have to consider if these duties will allow them to feel they are providing a service patrons find valuable. Though certainly, people volunteer for different reasons and more authority may be a bigger motivator than being useful.

Never The Twain…

Like a parent that doesn’t like to see the kids fight, I get uneasy when I see arts groups competing with each other for limited resources when they could be collaborating at least partially with their efforts. What really makes me uncomfortable is getting caught in the politics between them. This afternoon I had a group call to inquire about renting the facility. After I sent them an application they apparently sent out an email blast adverting that they were doing the show. (They shouldn’t have until they got approval for their event but that is another matter.) I get a call a few minutes later from the leader of the group the applicants split off from asking if it was true we had a show going on that night. His group does a show here every year and from the subtext of his questions, I guess he sees his splinter rivals as a threat.

I have frequently mentioned differing opinions about interpretation or what subsection of a discipline to emphasize as a basis for creating a separate organization but I don’t know if I have ever addressed the motivation of raw drama. Unfortunately, there are plenty of instances where dislike for others has caused a schism in organizations.

I will concede that sometimes it is healthier to split off rather than continue in a bad situation and that it can result in a stronger organization. We do have a case where we deal with an original group and a group that split away because they felt the parent group was too disorganized. I can attest that the splinter group is indeed much more pleasant to work with because they are organized. (They also pay their bills on a timely manner!)

In the majority of cases I have come across, the separation dilutes the effectiveness of each entity. I was talking to a gentleman with a long institutional memory who told me that locally when Federal funding for a WPA-like arts program ran out those involved in a dance company split into smaller groups, many of which replicated the efforts of the others. Even though the fragmentation was generally amiable, the result is that every Christmas brings 4-5 competing versions of The Nutcracker. Some versions are more family friendly than others which serves as a good alternative to the one very formal production which appeals to the aficionados. That still leaves 3-4 groups competing for the family audience and it shows in some of the attendance numbers.

Passion and anger has been known to inspire works of art but more often it seems to spawn unimaginative polemics. There is nothing stopping either from filing for non-profit status and soliciting grants to support their work. As a funder or patron It is rather difficult to discern among those who are in conflict whose ideology is more pure and sincere. A friend gave me a tour of her town once and pointed out the homes of two theatre groups noting that the community wasn’t really big enough for both though they were rivals whose bitterness was sometimes played out publicly. One was slightly more successful but the other enjoyed the largess, and accompanying cachet, of a well known film actor. As a result, neither needed to make peace with the other though they and the community might be the better for it.

An End to Waiting Tables?

Via a listing on the Chronicle of Higher Education website today, I became aware of The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). The survey which is entering a trial phase with plans for national reach starting in 2010 will extensively query alumni of arts high schools, college/university programs and conservatories about the training they received and its applicability in their careers.

According to a press release on the SNAAP website,

“Arts alumni who graduated 5, 10, 15 and 20 years earlier will provide information about their formal arts training. They will report the nature of their current arts involvement, reflect on the relevance of arts training to their work and further education, and describe turning points, obstacles, and key relationships and opportunities that influenced their lives and careers.

The results of the annual online survey and data analysis system will help schools strengthen their programs of study by tracking what young artists need to advance in their fields.”

The press release also acknowledges that upon graduation, artists don’t often perform the exact work they for which they trained. The release charitably suggests that “they may work at the boundaries between disciplines.” I suspect the survey will find in many cases people end up doing work barely tangentially related to their training in the arts. Long time readers will recall that I covered an attempt by Tom Loughlin, a professor at SUNY-Fredonia to track the success graduates of his program were having getting work in any entertainment related pursuit. While his method wasn’t entirely scientific, I suspect the results won’t be diametrically opposed to what SNAAP finds.

I am prepared to be encouraged by unsuspected rays of hope that the SNAAP survey uncovers. They note that the approach of the creative economy will generate a demand for people with arts training so if the results do lead training programs to reevaluate their approaches and make their students more employable, it could certainly be worth the costs. The FAQ on the SNAAP website notes other benefits to policy and decision making related to the arts. (Including parents and students considering it as a career path.)

Something I found interesting in the FAQ was the response people had to early versions of the survey.

“The initial testing of the SNAAP questionnaire indicated that arts alumni were frustrated because the survey assumed a linear career, and suggested that all events and experiences were equally important.

An interactive graphic interface, the SNAAP lifemap will allow survey respondents to tell their stories and to indicate the relative importance of events and experiences to their careers, whether they work in or outside of the arts. “

The introduction of the lifemap feature as part of the survey is an intriguing approach since it will be generated as people answer. Personally when I fill out surveys it is frequently difficult to decide between the extreme categories. I am faced by the question about whether I strongly (dis)agree or emphatically (dis)agree. I think if I saw a graphical representation of how my answers were being interpreted, in this case the relative importance of chapters in my life, I could answer more accurately. (i.e. Oh no, that’s not right, job B had a much greater impact than job A, let me go back and revise). This isn’t an approach that can be used with all surveys since it obviously influences responses, but in some cases it can be helpful. In fact, it could actually assist in self reflection if a person came to the realization that Job A actually influenced them more than they realized and they can’t honestly massage the numbers to make Job B appear more prominent.